From the haunting music of Mesopotamia, to Bach and all the way to Kanye West – music has been a constant throughout the evolution of mankind. And why shouldn’t it be? If you’ve ever cried to your favourite sad song, suddenly found the will to run that extra mile when an upbeat track comes on, or ever felt the ‘chills’ (known as musical fissions) when listening to a song that you really like – you know the strange power that music has over us.
But how does something seemingly so intangible affect us by us merely listening to it? Scientists have discovered that with music, several millennia of neurobiological development is capable of altering the very same neurons that created it. This article digs into the question – how does music affect the brain?
Music is one of the most powerful sources of auditory stimulation. Brain scans performed on people who were listening to music found that nearly the whole brain lit up – implying that listening to music activates more than just the parts of the brain that process sound(1). Music can strongly affect our emotions, making us feel happier or sadder.
A review that looked at 28 studies concluded that patients with clinical depression experienced significantly reduced symptoms when listening or by just participating in music therapy(2). Confidence, motivation and self-esteem all improved after music treatment. Patients who were admitted for acute episodes of psychosis and who were diagnosed with schizophrenia (a mental illness) also benefitted from receiving structured music therapy(3). Music even has the power to reduce the severity of physical symptoms in chronic pain and pain associated with surgery and medical conditions(4).
Learning a musical instrument may be training your brain to be more efficient. Musicians were found to have better working memory capabilities but had lower brain activation while performing the tests compared to non-musicians, suggesting that may reflect more efficient use of neural resources(5). Musical training may enhance a person’s mental flexibility. What’s more, musicians were still found to have enhanced auditory memory, short and long-term memory as well as visuospatial (the ability to imagine and recognize similarities and differences between objects) skills that persisted even as they grew older(6).
If you aren’t that musically inclined – worry not. Researchers from Stanford have discovered that just listening to music (specifically: Baroque-period symphonies, as used in this study) may be able to drive the brain to pay more attention and improve its ability to update events stored in the working memory(7).
Interestingly, music therapy may also be able to heal stroke-induced cognitive damage. Patients who recently suffered from strokes experienced improvements in memory and attention skills after undergoing two months of listening to music for one to two hours a day. These patients also appeared to be less depressed and confused compared to those who didn’t receive this treatment. This suggests that music can enhance the formation of new neuron connections in our brain – a phenomenon known as neural plasticity.
Given the mountains of evidence that point towards the therapeutic nature of music, the question remains if scientists can manipulate the chords and notes to produce specific tracks for specific purposes. One hotly debated topic to this regard is whether or not music can improve learning skills.
The idea that music boosted study productivity stemmed from the 1991 concept of the ‘Mozart effect’ that states that listening to classical music could make students more intelligent. More extensive studies reveal that this isn’t necessarily the case – one study found that students that revised in quiet environments did 60% better than those who revised with music(8).
However, music research is tricky and the differing effects may be caused by different features of the music such as its genre, tempo, lyrics and volume. The same study also found that students who listened to music had better test scores if it had no lyrics compared to their peers who listened to music with lyrics(8). Personal music taste has also been shown to strongly influence whether listening to music improved test performance(9).
In the quest to search for that ‘magic track’ – audio engineers and scientists have come up with a form of music known as binaural beats (or auditory beat stimulation). These strange tunes are made up of two constant beats of different frequencies in each earpiece – imparting a sensation of the beat ping-ponging back and forth between your ears. While studies on binaural beats are relatively young, small experiments suggest that it may be useful in treating stress and anxiety as well improving mood, memory, attention and creativity(10).
Music has evolved alongside mankind for hundreds and thousands of years. Armed with modern day technology, it may only take a few more decades for the creation of music that definitively heals, soothes and augments the brain.
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2. Leubner D, Hinterberger T. Reviewing the Effectiveness of Music Interventions in Treating Depression. Frontiers in Psychology. 2017;8:1109.
3. Carr C, Odell-Miller H, Priebe S. A Systematic Review of Music Therapy Practice and Outcomes with Acute Adult Psychiatric In-Patients. PLoS ONE. 2013;8(8):e70252.
4. Kemper K, Danhauer S. Music as Therapy2005. 282-8 p.
5. Alain C, Khatamian Y, He Y, Lee Y, Moreno S, Leung Ada WS, et al. Different neural activities support auditory working memory in musicians and bilinguals. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2018;0(0).
6. Grassi M, Meneghetti C, Toffalini E, Borella E. Auditory and cognitive performance in elderly musicians and nonmusicians. PLOS ONE. 2017;12(11):e0187881.
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8. Perham N, Currie H. Does listening to preferred music improve reading comprehension performance? Applied Cognitive Psychology. 2014;28(2):279-84.
9. Schellenberg E, Hallam S. Music listening and cognitive abilities in 10 and 11 year-olds: The Blur effect. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2006;1060:202-9.
10. Chaieb L, Wilpert EC, Reber TP, Fell J. Auditory Beat Stimulation and its Effects on Cognition and Mood States. Frontiers in Psychiatry. 2015;6:70.