Does Music Affect The Brain?

Table of Contents (click to expand)

Music affects the brain in more ways than one. It enhances motor and cognitive abilities. It reduces pain, stress and improves neurogenesis.

The story of humans and music is quite an ancient one. A slender bone flute collecting dust in a central European Cave traces back to the first settlers on the continent some 40,000 years ago. From the loud and terrifying carnyx used to deter Roman invaders to the calming Spotify playlists we listen to on our commutes, music has evolved and inspired in countless ways over the centuries. However, the question remains: does music have the power to impact the brain?

Ice Age flute carved from a vulture's wing bone, dated to about 35,000 years ago with carefully made finger holes(mountainpix)s
Bone Flute traced back to the Ice Age (Photo Credit : mountainpix/Shutterstock)

Music For The Soul Brain

Scientists have shown that music does affect various parts of the brain. The motor cortex and the cerebellum help coordinate your dance moves to the latest beat. Moreover, you can blame the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens when you sob while listening to ‘Perfect’ by Ed Sheeran. However, these effects are just the beginning.

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Music & Memory

Music can also improve memory! Have you ever struggled with mathematical tables, but can sing ‘Bad Romance’ in your sleep? (You’re not alone). For a long time, the connection between music and memory has been a hotly debated topic, but researchers have recently uncovered that the processing of language and music relies on a common neural pathway.

Scientific evidence suggests that exposure to music in one’s teenage years has a greater emotional impact as compared to music listened to during one’s adult years. Findings from this study are in use as a form of therapy for those who have Alzheimer’s disease. Music and lyric recall are being used to retrieve lost memories of these patients. This is because music can increase neuron production in the hippocampus (the memory centre of the brain), thus improving memory.

limbic system(Designua)s
The hippocampus is responsible for memory and navigation (Photo Credit : Designua/Shutterstock)

Music & IQ

There have been several claims that listening to classical music can boost cognitive ability, but is it true?

The ‘Mozart effect” remains one of the most publicized effects of music on the mind. Researchers from UC Irvine explored whether listening to music influenced cognitive performance, especially spatial-temporal reasoning. College students were split into 3 groups and subjected to a standard IQ test. One group heard Mozart, another heard some relaxing tunes, and the last heard nothing. The classical listeners produced higher test scores. When classical music was compared in the same way with different genres, the former still produced better results.

But how does this happen?

Researchers speculate that music facilitates the stimulation of neurons in the right hemisphere of the cerebrum. This half of the brain is responsible for higher function. Hence, it ‘warms up’ these neurons, enabling them to function more efficiently, allowing for the faster processing of information. However, this phenomenon is short-lived. For a more long-term impact, studies indicate that one should learn to play an instrument. It enhances the ability of the brain to master activities concerning memory, attention and language skills.

The right half of the cerebrum is stimulated by music

Music & Exercise

Have you ever wondered if the hours you spent making a ‘workout playlist’ for yourself were actually helpful?

Young woman workout in gym healthy lifestyle(Friends Stock)s
Music boosts workouts (Photo Credit : Friends Stock/Shutterstock)

The answer is yes! Not only does loud and rhythmic music increase adrenaline levels in the body, but it also releases endorphins in the brain. Endorphins heighten the feeling of excitement and mitigate stress. Furthermore, listening to music has shown to override signals of fatigue and is successful in distracting our brain. This is beneficial for low to moderate-intensity workouts. However, even music can’t distract our brain from the torture of high-intensity exercises.

Also Read: What Are Binaural Beats?

Music & Stress

With a marked increase in music-based stress reduction applications, there is no doubt that music reduces stress and anxiety, in addition to improving sleep quality. Relaxing music reduces levels of noradrenaline (a vigilance chemical), helping you doze off in peace. Studies have indicated that music around 60 bpm can synchronize with alpha brainwaves, which are prominent when in a relaxed and conscious state.

A study consisting of 80 urological surgery patients under spinal anesthesia revealed that music could reduce the requirement of auxiliary IV sedation. Patients in this trial could monitor the amount of sedative they got during their surgery. Patients who had been randomly selected to hear music required less sedative than those who heard white noise, or the operating room’s own chatter and clatter. Hence, music helped patients cope with the stress and anxiety that usually accompanies surgeries.

Music & Therapy

Finally, there is evidence that music helps you heal faster. In a study conducted in an Austrian hospital, it was observed that patients recovering from back surgeries healed faster, and had reduced pain, when their rehabilitation process included music therapy. Music links the autonomic nervous system, which controls brain function and blood pressure, to the limbic system, which oversees feelings and emotions. This connection can aid in coping with the pain associated with injuries.

The body response follows suit when slow music is played—the heartbeat slows and blood pressure decreases. Breathing relaxes, helping to relieve tension in the spine, arms, back and stomach. Hearing slow or soothing music on a daily basis helps our bodies unwind, leading to less pain and quicker recovery. This method is utilized in the rehabilitation of patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease and strokes.

Smiling young nurse taking care about senior man with headset(Budimir Jevtic)s
Music therapy has gained credibility amongst doctors (Photo Credit : Budimir Jevtic/Shutterstock)

So, it turns out that Dr. Dre might classify as a certified doctor after all! On a more serious note, perhaps there is a reason why the Greek god Apollo is worshipped in the fields of both music and medicine. It’s fascinating that music can have the power to quite literally change our lives. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”

Also Read: Why Do We Forget Pain When We’re Engaged In Another Activity?

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References (click to expand)
  1. Peretz, I., Vuvan, D., Lagrois, M.-É., & Armony, J. L. (2015, March 19). Neural overlap in processing music and speech. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. The Royal Society.
  2. Simmons-Stern, N. R., Budson, A. E., & Ally, B. A. (2010, August). Music as a memory enhancer in patients with Alzheimer's disease. Neuropsychologia. Elsevier BV.
  3. Jenkins, J. S. (2001, April). The Mozart Effect. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. SAGE Publications.
  4. Kučikienė, D., & Praninskienė, R. (2018, August 30). The impact of music on the bioelectrical oscillations of the brain. Acta medica Lituanica. Vilnius University Press.
  5. Lepage, C., Drolet, P., Girard, M., Grenier, Y., & DeGagné, R. (2001, October). Music Decreases Sedative Requirements During Spinal Anesthesia. Anesthesia & Analgesia. Ovid Technologies (Wolters Kluwer Health).
  6. Forgeard, M., Winner, E., Norton, A., & Schlaug, G. (2008, October 29). Practicing a Musical Instrument in Childhood is Associated with Enhanced Verbal Ability and Nonverbal Reasoning. (T. Fitch, Ed.), PLoS ONE. Public Library of Science (PLoS).
  7. Releasing Stress Through the Power of Music. The University of Nevada, Reno
  8. Music and health - Harvard Health. Harvard University
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About the Author

Saloni Hombalkar has earned her Bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Sciences from SDSOS, NMIMS-Mumbai. She is an enthusiastic science communicator and hopes to share her passion for biology with as many people as possible. Apart from Biology, she enjoys discussing Marvel, learning to code, reading YA fiction and dramatic karaoke sessions.