How Music Benefits the Brain

How Music Affects the Brain for the BetterBy  Deane Alban

Contributing Writer for Wake Up World

Music has played  an important part of every human culture, both past and present. (1) People around the world experience universal responses to music. (2) We’re all familiar with  how  certain pieces of music can change  your mood, get you motivated, or help you  concentrate. And now, advances in neuroscience enable researchers to quantitatively measure  how music affects the brain.

Their  discoveries are exciting — and good news for music lovers.

Music is a fantastic brain exercise that activates  every known part of the brain. (3) Music can make you smarter, happier and more productive  at all stages of life. Let’s take a closer look at some of the latest findings on the many  ways both playing and listening to music  can enhance your  brain.

Musicians  Have Better  Brains

If you want evidence of  how music affects the brain, it makes sense to look at the brains of people who play  a lot of music — professional musicians. Brain scans show that their  brains are different than  the those of the rest of us. Their brains are noticeably more symmetrical. (4) Areas of the brain responsible for motor control, auditory processing, and spatial coordination are larger. They also have a larger corpus callosum,  which is  the  band of nerve fibers  that enables  the two hemispheres  of the brain to communicate with each other.

Change  Your Mood with Music

Science has now  proven what music lovers already know, that listening to upbeat music can improve  your mood. (6) Listening and playing music reduces chronic stress by lowering the stress hormone cortisol.  (7) Music can  make you feel more hopeful, powerful, and in control of your life. (8, 9) And listening to sad music has its benefits, too. (10) If you are going through a tough time, listening to sad music is cathartic; it can help you get in touch with those emotions to  help heal them. (11)

Even if you aren’t a professional musician, listening to music can still enhance  your work performance. Listening to music at work can make  you a  happier,  more productive employee — especially if it’s music you’ve chosen. Office workers  allowed to listen to the kind of music they like complete tasks more quickly and come up with better ideas than those who have no control over their musical choices. (5)

Music Boosts Brain Chemicals

One of the ways  music enhances brain function is by stimulating the formation of certain  brain chemicals. Listening to music increases  the neurotransmitter  dopamine,  which is the brain’s “motivation molecule” and an integral part of the pleasure-reward system.  (12) It’s the same brain chemical responsible for the “feel good” states obtained from eating chocolate, orgasm, and runner’s high.

Music Therapy - Children drummingPlaying music with  others or enjoying  live music also stimulates the brain hormone  oxytocin. (13) Oxytocin has been  called the “trust molecule” and the  “moral molecule” since it  helps us bond with and trust others. (14) There’s evidence that the oxytocin bump experienced by music lovers can make them more generous and trustworthy. (15)

Music Helps You  Learn

Many schools have cut music programs due loss of funding, and  this is widely believed by parents and educators to be a big mistake. Music, whether taught in or outside of school,  helps students excel in the following ways:  (16)

  • improved language development
  • small increase in IQ
  • improved test scores
  • increased brain connectivity
  • increased spatial intelligence

The last item on this list — spatial intelligence — helps students understand  how things go together. This skill is critical in careers like architecture, engineering, math, and computer  science.

The Effects of Musical Training  on Young Brains

In the 1990s, the effects of music on the brain were  popularized by  the Mozart effect. This theory purported  that listening to music composed by Mozart can make you smarter. Parents had  their babies listen to the music of Mozart to give their brains a jump start  — often even before they were born.

The accepted theory  now is  that taking music lessons as a child enhances brain  function and structure, but that there’s nothing uniquely beneficial about the music of Mozart. Early music lessons  enhance brain plasticity  — the brain’s capacity to change and grow.  (19) Children with  musical training  do  better in subjects like language, reading, and math and have better fine motor skills than their non-musical  classmates. (17,  18)  Kids who sing together in a choir report higher satisfaction in all their classes, not just music.

And if kids don’t stick with their music lessons forever, that’s OK.  There’s evidence that  a little bit of music training goes a long way. Just a  half-hour music  lesson  increases blood flow in the left hemisphere of the brain. (20) As  little as four years of music lessons were found to improve certain brain functions, even when tested 40 years later! (21) When exposure to music  training  begins before age seven, the brain enhancement that takes place can  last a lifetime. (22,  23)

Most studies on music and the brain  have been done on older kids, but it looks like it’s  never too young to start. In another study, music lessons of sorts  —  playing drums and singing nursery rhymes — were given to babies before they  could  walk or talk. (25) Babies who had music lessons communicated better, smiled more, and showed earlier and more sophisticated brain responses to music.

Just as it’s never too early to start, it’s also never too late to benefit from music. Playing music and dancing protects seniors against  memory loss and cognitive decline when compared to other brain exercises  such as playing cards, doing the crossword puzzle, or  walking for exercise.  (26) It will be interesting to see how popular online brain training programs like Lumosity fare against music in  future studies.

Music Therapy - Senior man with headphones

How Music Therapy  Improves Quality of Life

Anyone can play or listen to music for “recreational purposes only” and still gain brain benefits. But when professional health care help is warranted, you can enlist the aid of a musical therapist.  Music therapists are trained  to use music therapeutically to  address  their patients’  physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs.

There are measurable changes in certain neurotransmitters  following music therapy. (27) Music therapy has proven useful for treating people with  autism, dementia, Alzheimer’s, pain management, emotional trauma, and a variety of mental disorders including depression. (28,  29) Potential  benefits from working with a music therapist include improved  mood, concentration, and motivation,  and decreased anxiety, anger, stress, and frustration. (30)

The Amazing Way  Music Therapy Helps  Alzheimer’s Patients

One of the most remarkable successes of music therapy is the impact it has  on the lives of Alzheimer’s patients. Advanced Alzheimer’s patients lose their ability to have interactive conversations with others and eventually  stop speaking completely. But music therapy has been  very successful at getting  through to patients where nothing else has.  (31, 32)

When hearing familiar  music, patients often visibly “light up” and sing along. It seems that musical memories far outlast other kinds of memories. Caretakers and family members report that for most patients, music therapy is the  best part of the  day.

Music therapy does more than help patients remember. It helps alleviate depression, anxiety, and agitation  while improving brain function  and overall quality of life. (33) To learn more about how music therapy is changing lives of the elderly and infirmed, I  highly recommend the documentary  Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory. Winner of the 2014 Audience Choice Award at the Sundance Film Festival, this movie chronicles the astonishing experiences of nursing home patients  whose brains  have been reawakened by listening to the music of their youth.

Here’s a short  excerpt from the movie.

Man In Nursing Home Reacts To Hearing Music From His Era

Music Playlists for Brain Enhancement

If you want to listen to  music for  better mood, learning or concentration, the free music streaming service  Spotify  is a great place to start. Spotify has millions of songs including a decent  lineup of brain  enhancing  music. Go  to their “genres and moods” tab and you’ll find playlists created specifically to  enhance mood and focus. The mood genre is broken down into sub-genres like  happy, psyched, and melancholic music. Within  the focus category, you’ll find  playlists  like acoustic concentration, white noise, zen focus, deep focus,  intense studying, natural concentration,  as well as numerous meditation playlists.

You might also check the Johns Hopkins School of Education’s recommendations for the  best music for learning. Included are  their top music picks for  focus and concentration,  creativity and reflection, and active learning.

What kind of  music do you listen to when you want to concentrate, relax, study, or change your mood?

Previous articles by Deane Alban:

About the author:

deane albanDeane Alban holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and has taught and written on a wide variety of natural health topics for over 20 years. Her current focus is helping people overcome brain fog, “senior moments”, and other signs of mental decline now, and preventing Alzheimer’s and dementia in the future.

The human brain is designed to last a lifetime, but modern life takes a greater toll on the brain than most people realize.  Deane teaches the best ways to keep your brain healthy and stay mentally sharp for life at her website


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