It’s long been said that music is mind medicine. Advances in neuroscience and brain imaging are revealing what’s happening in the brain to prove this true.
Research shows that listening to music can reduce anxiety, depression, blood pressure, and pain as well as improve sleep quality, mood, memory, increase some cognitive functions, enhance learning and concentration, and ward off the effects of brain aging. Music is so good for your brain because it is one of the few activities that stimulates your whole brain. Because music is structural, mathematical, and architectural based on relationships between one note and the next, it’s a total brain workout.
When you listen to music, much more is happening in your body than simple auditory processing. A recent imaging study found that music activated auditory, motor, and limbic brain regions no matter whether people were listening to Vivaldi or the Beatles. Research determined that the motor areas process rhythm, the auditory areas process sound, while the limbic regions are associated with emotions.
Music Reduces Stress and Depression
A meta-analysis of 400 studies validated the many health benefits of listening to music including lowering of the stress hormone, cortisol. In one study reviewed, patients about to undergo surgery who listened to music had less anxiety and lower cortisol levels than people who had taken drugs. The analysis determined that music had documented positive effects on brain chemistry and associated mental and physical health benefits in four areas:
Listening to music triggers the brain’s nucleus accumbens, responsible for releasing the feel-good neurochemical dopamine, which is an integral part of the pleasure-reward and motivational systems and plays a critical role in learning. Higher dopamine levels improve concentration, boost mood, and enhance memory. Dopamine is the chemical responsible for the yummy feelings you get from eating chocolate, having an orgasm, or achieving a runner’s high.
Science shows that music can help alleviate depression and help a person feel more hopeful and in control of their life. Playing music with others or enjoying live music gets the brain hormone oxytocin flowing increasing feelings of connectedness, trust, and social bonding.
One study found that listening to music reduced chronic pain by up to 21 percent and depression by up to 25 percent, and other research showed that music therapy significantly improved depressive symptoms.
How Music Enhances Cognition
Music has the power to improve specific higher brain functions and really can make you smarter. In particular, science has shown that listening to music enhances reading and literacy skills, reasoning, and mathematical abilities.
In studies with people who listen to and play a lot of music – professional musicians’, brain scans reveal noticeably more symmetry, larger areas of the brain responsible for motor control, auditory processing, and spatial coordination, and more developed callosum. The corpus callosum is the band of nerve fibers that connects the two sides of the brain to each other, allowing communication.
Learning to play a musical instrument is one of the best things you can do for your brain, at any age. One study showed that just four years of music lessons in youth improved certain brain functions in tests 40 years later!
However, if you’re not a musician, just listening to music for enjoyment has positive effects too. Seniors who listened to specific types of music showed increased processing speed and improved episodic memory. Other tests revealed that listening to background music can increase productivity and enhance cognitive performance and creativity on some tasks.
Be careful, though. The type of music and task matter here. Certain music, like popular tunes with words, asks your brain to multi-task and can interfere with reading comprehension and information processing and is best used during breaks.
Music Boosts Memory
Your brain is hard-wired to connect music with long-term memory. Specific brain regions linked to autobiographical and episodic memories and emotions are activated by hearing familiar music. Listening to music has been shown to significantly improve working memory in older adults.
Even for persons with Alzheimer’s or severe dementia, music can tap deep into emotional recall. Personal music favorites can often calm chaotic brain activity and enable the listener to focus on the present moment and regain a connection to others. Research showed that scores on memory tests of Alzheimer’s patients improved after they listened to classical music.
Science has also confirmed that it’s possible to use music to help a young brain retain information and enhance learning.
Giving Your Brain A Musical Boost
Research is showing that music therapy can improve health outcomes in a wide variety of populations, from premature infants and children with autism, ADHD or developmental and learning disabilities, to people with emotional trauma, substance abuse problems, brain injuries, physical disabilities, acute and chronic pain, depression, Parkinson’s disease, and more.
Science has recorded measurable changes in the brain following music therapy. Music therapy can involve working with a trained professional or completing a self-paced online program.
About a decade ago, I included music therapy from Advanced Brain Technologies as an integral part of the rehabilitation tools I used to heal from a serious brain injury. I still enjoy listening to their music today to relax and facilitate my meditation practice. Companies like Advanced Brain Technologies allow anybody to use music easily to improve their brain and life.
Advanced Brain Technology’s The Listening Program is a sound based program using the science of music to better your brain. The Listening Program trains your brain to improve how you perceive, process and respond to all of the sensory information your brain is bombarded with every day.
For more than a decade, The Listening Program has helped hundreds of thousands of children and adults with cognitive, behavioral, and emotional difficulties. People have used The Listening Program to think, speak, read and write better, prepare for college entrance exams and athletic events, improve productivity, learn new languages and musical instruments, and just to relax and sleep better. Learn more here.