Music and GABA – A Harmonious Duo

Music and GABA – A Harmonious Duo

It all began on 19th September 1970, by complete coincidence the day after guitar legend Jimi Hendrix died. Now in its 52nd year, Glastonbury welcomes more than 100,000 festival goers to witness show-stopping, chart-topping artists make history on its Pyramid Stage, and last Sunday evening was no exception with Sir Elton John closing this year’s event. 

Those who have attended know there is something extra special about Glastonbury; but whether you’ll be attending any festivals yourself this summer, have you ever wondered about the science behind the profound connection we feel with music? 

One key player in this symphony of emotions is the GABA neurotransmitter.  

GABA and Music: A Harmonious Duo: 
Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid, or GABA, is a neurotransmitter that regulates communication between brain cells. It plays a crucial role in controlling anxiety, stress, and even cognitive function. When it comes to music, GABA serves as a conductor, orchestrating the mental and emotional symphony that unfolds within us. 

In fact, as this year’s Glastonbury headliner Elton John once said, “Music has healing power. It has the ability to take people out of themselves for a few hours.” 

Bird song: 
Because GABA exists in everything in nature – from animals to humans, to plants - interestingly, GABA even plays a role when it comes to the animal kingdom’s soundtrack. Birds, like young zebra finches learn songs by listening to the songs of their older peers. Studies have observed the brains of zebra finches as they learn. They found that GABAergic inhibition was critical for focusing on learned sequences. Once a sequence has been memorised, GABAergic inhibition kicks in when listening to that sequence.  

In effect, GABAergic inhibition allows the locking in of learned sections of a song, so that the brain can “focus” on new information.  

This role of GABA in protecting memories is also seen in humans. "Overlearning" a process in which musicians for instance, fixate on a particular passage, sequence, or exercise. During overlearning GABAergic inhibition consolidates memories by limiting neuroplasticity - the ability of the brain to rewire itself - which can cause interference in memory consolidation. 

Music possesses power extending far beyond entertainment, reaching deep into our minds and souls – and we’re fascinated with the science behind GABA role in this, for example: 

  • Enhancing Learning and Memory: 
    Music is not only a feast for the ears but also a powerful tool for learning and memory enhancement. Research has shown that GABA levels in the brain increase during musical training, contributing to improved cognitive performance. So, if you've ever dreamt of mastering an instrument or refining your musical skills, engaging in regular practice can stimulate GABA production and enhance your ability to learn and retain new information. 

  • Amplifying Emotional Connection: 
    One of the most enchanting aspects of music is its ability to evoke a wide range of emotions within us. From joy and exhilaration to melancholy and introspection, music has the power to transport us to different emotional landscapes. GABA plays a significant role in regulating these emotional responses, allowing us to connect deeply with the music we hear. By attending Glastonbury Festival or any live music event, you can immerse yourself in a sea of melodies and allow GABA to heighten your emotional connection to the music, fostering a transformative experience.

  • Relieving Stress and Promoting Relaxation: 
    In our fast-paced lives, stress has become an unwelcome companion. Fortunately, music, in combination with GABA, offers a respite from the demands of daily life. Research has shown that listening to music can stimulate the release of GABA, leading to a state of relaxation and tranquillity. 

Sound good to you? Well, here are three ways you can regulate GABA in your brain without having to rely on the Glastonbury festival ticket: 

  1. Engage in Regular Physical Exercise: Physical activities such as jogging, yoga, or dancing can significantly boost GABA levels in the brain. Incorporate exercise into your routine to not only improves your overall well-being but also enhance your brain's receptivity to music.  
  1. Practice Mindfulness and Meditation: Mindfulness practices have been shown to increase GABA levels in the brain, promoting a state of calmness and focus. Dedicate a few minutes each day to meditation, deep breathing exercises, or mindful listening to foster a receptive mindset for musical experiences. 

  2. Make Sleep a Priority: Adequate rest and quality sleep are essential for maintaining optimal GABA levels in the brain. Committing to establishing a consistent sleep routine, by switching off screens before bed, breathing techniques, journaling, or using aromatherapy oils to help ensure you get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Will provide your brain with the opportunity to restore GABA levels, ultimately enhancing your musical experiences.