Music affects the brain in many positive ways. It makes you smarter, happier and more productive at any age. Listening is good, playing is even better.
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 from the rest of ours.
Their brains are noticeably more symmetrical. (4)
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Areas of the brain responsible for motor control, auditory processing, and spatial coordination are larger.
They also have a larger corpus callosum.
This is the band of nerve fibers that enables the two hemispheres of the brain to communicate with each other.
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Music Can Improve Your Mood
Most of us aren’t professional musicians, but 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 their preferred choice of music complete tasks more quickly and come up with better ideas than those who have no control over their musical choices. (5)
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)
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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 your emotions to help you heal. (11)
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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.
This 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.
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Playing music with others or enjoying live music stimulates the brain hormone oxytocin. (13)
There’s evidence that the oxytocin bump experienced by music lovers can make them more generous and trustworthy. (15)
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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
Counterintuitively, music can help students excel in science.
The last item on this list, spatial intelligence, helps students understand how things work together.
This skill is critical in careers like architecture, engineering, math, and computer science.
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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 listening to the music of Mozart to give their brains a jumpstart, 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 encourages brain plasticity — the brain’s capacity to change and grow. (19)
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)
Kids who sing together in a choir report higher satisfaction in all their classes, not just music. (24)
Most studies on music and the brain have been done on older kids.
But it looks like it’s never too young to start.
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 either.
Seniors who play an instrument, sing or dance reap physical, psychological and social benefits from music.
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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 music 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)
Potential benefits from working with a music therapist include improved mood, concentration, and motivation, and decreased anxiety, anger, stress, and frustration. (30)
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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.
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)
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To learn more about how music therapy is changing lives of the elderly and infirm, I highly recommend the documentary Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory.
You can rent the DVD on Netflix or stream or buy it on Amazon.
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 but moving excerpt from the movie.
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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.
Once you create an account, go to their “genres and moods” tab where you’ll find playlists created specifically to improve mood and focus.
The mood genre is broken down into subgenres 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.
How Music Affects the Brain: The Bottom Line
There’s strong evidence that playing a musical instrument or listening to music can positively impact brain health and function.
This brain boosting effect is evident at all stages of life.
Everyone benefits, from babies to seniors.
Music can improve mood, increase intelligence, enhance learning and concentration, and ward off the effects of brain aging.
Music therapy can help various mood and brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s.
No matter your age, it’s never too soon or too late to fill your life with music!