Why the National Anthem Makes Athletes Cry

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When one studies music therapy, one begins to notice the role of music in all aspects of society. From the evening news opening theme to the ice cream truck. I went to a baseball game a few months ago and was completely distracted the whole time by the use of music. There’s the 7 second clip of a song for each home team player as they step out to the plate. The “charge!” trumpet fanfare. The “we will rock you” rhythm. Not to mention Harry Carey’s tune. It’s fascinating to me, and now, thanks to my music psychology class and A&P, I know exactly why music does its job in athletic events. A role nothing else but music can fulfill.

The Olympics only enhances this phenomenon. The hype, prestige, and pressure that comes from the Olympics makes music’s role even more significant and crucial. John Williams knew that. Which is why you get goosebumps when you hear the low triad of the trumpet in his opening fanfare.

I love the Olympics. Probably because I’m so terrible at sports. I’m completely in awe of what these people can do. But one area of the Olympics that I have some knowledge of is what happens when a national anthem is played at a medals ceremony. You all know music affects emotions. Here’s a thorough explanation of why:

When sound hits your ear and goes into your inner ear, it is converted to an electrical impulse that can be translated in the brain. The cranial nerve that this impulse travels to is called the vestibulocochlear nerve. It’s the 8th cranial nerve (out of 12) that your brain contains to receive information about your senses. The impulse travels to the auditory cortex in your brain so that your brain can interpret what you are hearing. It is in this that you can tell the difference between a garbage truck and a piano. Also, the difference between your mother’s voice and anybody else’s.

First, though, the impulse travels to the medulla oblongata, part of the brain stem. It eventually send the signal to the cerebral cortex. The medulla oblongata includes the diencephalon which includes the thalamus and hypothalamus. Here is where it all happens! The hypothalamus is the control center for your emotions. It is also connected to the limbic system, which controls your hormones. And it’s connected to memory.

Still with me? Ok.

An Olympic athlete performs under massive amounts of emotional pressure, both outside and internal. He also is putting his physical body under and enormous amount of pressure and stress. And the anticipation only adds to it. This heightened awareness and focus takes a lot of energy.

When the race is over, and the athlete has won gold, all of the emotions that have been held back by this heightened focus are free to surface. The first display is usually a fist pump, a yell, or a smile. The initial shock of it all puts the athlete in a daze. And they are emotionally vulnerable because they are physically exhausted.

But the athlete has no defense against the power of music! When they’ve gotten their medal, and are standing in silence, the music starts. The music hits the athlete’s ear and it instantaneously travels to the hypothalamus, activating his memory and limbic system. Music is time-based, so the athlete is finally grounded in reality: Music has duration, one must be “present” to experience it. The music is actively engaging the person’s memory and emotions. Forms of this engagement are things like the familiarity of the tune, there are no words being sung in the recording so he must provide them, the tune gives the athlete a sense of identity and pride, and it is combined with the flag of his nation, which is rising before his eyes. Also, the anticipation of the tune and the memory of what’s happened before when listening to it in this context is a factor. All of this combined triggers an overflow of chemical reactions (remember the limbic system and hormones), which must be disposed of to maintain equilibrium inside the body. Read: tears.

Suckers! This is the part I revel in. The toughest athlete is no match for the intense reaction music causes. Music has such a unique power. It can break down barriers like nothing else. It is absolutely no coincidence that the tears don’t flow until the music starts playing.

As music therapists, we harness this power and use it as a therapeutic tool. We make it our job to know how to use someone’s personal experiences with music to help them with whatever problem they are facing. How cool is that??

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