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The Incredible Benefits of Music For The Brain

There’s something special about music, whether you’ve opted to listen to classical music as you drive, or you’re enjoying a spot of classic rock as you do the housework. Music can calm you right down, or pump you up.

It has played an important role in every culture of the past and present, with people across the world enjoying wide varieties of music. 

You already know that music can change your mood, or help you with your motivation. There are new discoveries, though, about how music can activate every area of the brain and is fantastic exercise. 

What Music Does To Your Brain 

Music can make you happier, it can make you more productive, and it can even make you smarter. There is a variety of things music does to enhance your brain, whether you are listening to it, or playing an instrument. 

  • Musicians brains are more symmetrical, and the effect is dependent on the instrument they play. For instance, in pianists the area of the brain representing finger movement grows. That is also true for the auditory processing, motor control, and spatial coordination areas of the brain. They can also identify speech sounds and pitch more accurately, as their brain is quick to respond to sound. The piece of tissue that connects the two brain hemispheres is larger amongst musicians, which may indicate better communication between hemispheres versus non-musicians. 
  • Music has an effect on how you view neutral faces. You can tell whether a particular song is sad, or happy, and our brains do respond differently to each. A short piece of music can have an impact. Studies indicate that hearing a short piece of music makes you more likely to interpret someone else’s neutral expression as sad or happy, matching the tone of the song they just heard. There’s another interesting aspect of emotions being influenced by music. Felt emotions and perceived emotions. Sometimes you will understand the emotions behind a song, without feeling those emotions. This may explain why some people can listen to sad music without feeling depressing. When you listen to sad music, there isn’t any real danger, so you can live vicariously through the emotions in the music, without feeling them. 
  • Improve creativity with ambient noise. It’s natural to crank up the volume when you’re listening to music while doing housework or working out. However, if you’re doing creative work the perfect volume is moderate. Ambient noise boosts your creativity without distracting you. Why? The moderate volume increases the difficulty of processing, thus encouraging abstract processing. The end result being an increase in creativity.

Essentially, it causes your brain to struggle with its normal processing, prompting it to tackle things more creatively. On the other hand, loud volume impairs creative thinking, causing you to feel overwhelmed and unable to efficiently process information. 

  • It can predict your personality. This theory has been tested on young adults, and is incredibly interesting. A study (The Relationship Between Prosocial Music and Helping Behaviour and its Mediators: An Irish College Sample, Kennedy) from University College Dublin put couples together, telling them to get to know each other over a period of six weeks. 

In the first week, 58% of the couples got to know each other by talking about music. By comparing their top ten favorite songs, they got a good indication of their partner’s personality traits. 

There were five traits used in this study: emotional stability, openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness. Emotional stability, openness to experience, and extraversion were the three traits easiest to guess based on musical preferences.

The study found these connections:

  • Fans of rap are outgoing and have high self-esteem. 
  • Fans of indie are creative, have low self-esteem, aren’t gentle or hard working. 
  • Fans of jazz are outgoing, creative, laidback, and have high self-esteem. 
  • Fans of country music are outgoing and hardworking. 
  • Fans of dance music are outgoing and creative. 
  • Fans of classical are laidback, creative introverts, with high self-esteem. 
  • Fans of opera are gentle, creative, and have a high self-esteem. 
  • Fans of heavy metal are creative and gentle, but have low self-esteem. They’re not outgoing or hardworking. 
  • Pop fans are gentle, outgoing, hardworking, and have high self-esteem. They aren’t laidback, nor are they creatives. 

This is very generalized, however, studies looking at extroverts and introverts show that there is an overlap here. How accurate is this for you? 

How Music Benefits Your Brain 

Okay, so music clearly has some serious effects on the human brain, but what about the benefits that it has? 

1| Mood Booster

You don’t need to be a professional musician to enjoy the benefits of music. Just listening to it can improve your work performance. It can make you more productive and happier, particularly when you get to choose the playlist. Office workers who are allowed to choose their music are quicker to complete their tasks, and are also more creative compared to those office workers with no control of the music.

It is no surprise that listening to music that you love will boost your mood. It also reduces cortisol levels, thus reducing chronic stress. It can make you feel in control of your life, hopeful, and powerful. What perhaps is surprising is that sad music also has its benefits. When you’re feeling down, sad music can be cathartic, connecting you to the emotions you’re struggling with, and allowing you to heal. 

2| Brain Chemical Boosting

Music can enhance your brain function, as it stimulates brain chemicals formation. It increases dopamine levels, which is the motivation molecule of the brain, and plays an important role in the brain’s pleasure center. It’s the part of the brain that provides you with the feel-good state after eating chocolate, or running. 

Playing music in a group, or taking in music live stimulates oxytocin, the trust molecule. It helps you to create bonds with others, and build trust. That oxytocin boost can make music lovers more trustworthy and more generous. 

3| Improved Learning

Sadly, we’re cutting funding to music programs across the country, which is a mistake. 

According to PBS, music can assist students in a number of ways, including: 

  • A slight increase in IQ
  • Increased brain connectivity 
  • Increased spatial intelligence
  • Improved language development
  • Improved test scores 
  • Improved science performance 

The Mozart effect popularized how music affected the brain in the 1990s. This theory suggests that listening to Mozart makes you smarter. Therefore, parents started playing Mozart for their babies, whether they were in or out of the womb. Now we accept that having our children take music lessons can enhance the structure and function of their brain. Though, this is not unique to Mozart. Musical children are more proficient in math, reading, and languages. 

Additionally, they have better motor skills when compared to their nonmusical peers. Even just a small amount of musical training can go a long way. Just 30 minutes of practice boosts blood flow to the brain’s left hemisphere. Just four years of lessons can improve specific brain functions even 40 years after the fact. The brain can be enhanced for a lifetime if music lessons start before the age of seven. 

Choir kids enjoy higher levels of satisfaction in every class they attend, not just music class. That doesn’t mean that it’s too late for you now! It’s never too late to enjoy from the social and psychological benefits of music. Singing, dancing, and learning an instrument can be beneficial at every age. It can protect against memory issues and cognitive decline. 

4| Improved Motor and Reasoning Skills

According to a study (Practicing a Musical Instrument in Childhood is Associated with Enhanced Verbal Ability and Nonverbal Reasoning; Forgeard, et al) from the University of St Andrews, children who spend three or more years playing an instrument perform better in fine motor skills and auditory discrimination abilities. They test better when it comes to nonverbal and verbal reasoning skills, which includes identifying the differences, similarities, and relationships between patterns and shapes. These are areas quite removed from music lessons, so it’s interesting to see the role music can play in the development of kids. 

5| Classical Music And Visual Attention

Again, it isn’t just children that can benefit from exposure to music or musical training. In one study, stroke patients listening to classical music shows an improvement in visual attention. The same study tried silence and white noise, with silence resulting in the worst results. Maybe you’re not that crazy for turning down your car radio when you’re looking for your destination. 

6| Music Helps Mental Health

A meta-analysis of hundreds of studies validated that listening to music lowers cortisol levels. In a study (Relaxing music as pre-medication before surgery: a randomized controlled trial; Bringman H1, et al) from Department of Surgery, Södertälje Hospital in Sweden surgery patients who enjoyed music before their procedure had lower cortisol levels and less anxiety than those who took drugs. 

Music was shown to affect four areas: lifting mood, reducing stress, boosting immunity, and contributing to social bonding. It also triggers the release of dopamine that feel good hormone. High levels of dopamine increase concentration, enhance memory, and boost your mood. 

Additionally, music can reduce the symptoms of depression, helping people feel hopeful and in control. According to the University of California, Berkeley taking in a live show increases the flow of oxytocin, increasing feelings of trust, social bonding, and connectedness. The NHS Trust confirms this, with research (Music therapy for depression; Maratos AS, et al) showing how undergoing music therapy improves depressive symptoms. It can also reduce chronic pain.  

7| Improved Exercise

Silence doesn’t make you a better drive, or a creative, nor does it help for exercising. In 1911, Leonard Ayres discovered that cyclists would pedal faster if they were listening to music. Why? Music drowns out your brain’s complaints regarding fatigue. When your body starts to realize that it’s tired, its impulse is to stop exercising. It signals the brain that the body needs a break. 

Music, however, is competing with those signals, and overrides the fatigue signal. This is incredibly beneficial for exercise that is of low or moderate intensity. 

Music helps you use energy more effectively and exercise harder, for longer. Cyclists who listen to music as they pedal use 7% less oxygen than silent cyclers. It isn’t as effective in high intensity exercises. 

8| Quality Of Life

Music therapy can improve your quality of life, too. You don’t have to be an expert, or a musician to reap the benefits of listening to music. However, music therapists can help when professional care is needed. They are trained to address the social, physical, cognitive, and emotional needs of their patients through therapeutic music. 

It has proven to be successful in treating chronic pain, a variety of mental health problems, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and emotional trauma. 

According to the American Music Therapy Association, working with a music therapist can improve your concentration, motivation, and mood. Additionally, it can reduce levels of anger, stress, frustrating, and anxiety. 

Perhaps the most notable success from music therapy is how it has impacted Alzheimer’s patients. As the disease advances, patients are unable to interact in conversation with others, eventually they stop speaking altogether. However, music therapy has proven to be incredibly successful in getting through to Alzheimer patients when nothing else has managed to. 

When these patients hear music, they are familiar with they often sing along, and light up visibly. It appears as though musical memories outlast other types of memories. Family members and caretakers of dementia patients report that the best part of the day is music therapy. It also does more than just assist patients in remembering. It reduces the symptoms of agitation, anxiety, and depression. 

If you want to start listening to music to improve your mood, increase your concentration, or learning, then there are free streaming services that can help. Spotify, for instance, has playlists dedicated to enhancing your brain. 

You’ll find it in the genres and moods section. Users have created a plethora of playlists that are designed to improve your focus and your mood. You’ll find that the genre for mood has been broken down further into subgenres. In the focus category, there are a variety of meditation playlists, or deep focus, acoustic concentration, intense studying, and more. 

Johns Hopkins has suggestions for the best music to use for improving learning. The music picks cover active learning, focus, creativity, concentration, and reflection. 

Final Thoughts 

As you can see, there is strong evidence that listening to music or playing a musical instrument can impact your brain function and brain health positively. 

The effects are evident at every stage of life, whether you’re exposing your baby to music, or indulging as a senior. 

Music is an effective way to improve your mood, enhance your concentration and ability to learn, it wards off brain aging, and increases intelligence. Music therapy has been used to treat dementia, brain disorders, mood disorders, and more. 

Looking for ways to get on board? Try out the following: 

  • Give your creativity a jumpstart. Try listening to what your grandkids or kids are into. It’s normal for people to stick with the same artists, songs, and genre as they listened to in their teens and 20s. Many people will go out of their way to avoid listening to anything that isn’t from their preferred era. You can challenge your brain with new music. You may not gain pleasure from it initially, but unfamiliarity forces your brain to struggle, forcing it to understand the new sounds that it is experiencing. 
  • Recall long forgotten memories. You may find that certain music brings back smells, tastes, thoughts, and memories from a time long forgotten. Are you looking for a bit of nostalgia? What band or music do you associate with meeting your spouse, or your wedding day? Give them a listen and see what memories flood back to you. 
  • Hear your body. Your body will react differently to each type of music that you listen to. So, pick music that works for you. While pop music may distract one person, it may be the perfect driver to help you concentrate. Just like music that you find relaxing before bed, may irritate someone else. We are all unique, so it’s okay to embrace the music that you love, but don’t be afraid to explore genres you wouldn’t have before. You may be surprised at how eclectic your tastes really are.

It doesn’t matter how old you are, it is never too late to start filling your life with the joy of music. Whether you just want to listen to the artistry of others, or you want to get in on the action and learn how to play an instrument yourself. Both offer their own benefits.