Strike Up the Hallelujah Chorus! Music is Great for Brain Health

Music is magic.

Or so it seems based on all the health benefits we enjoy just by listening to it (or better yet—playing it). The reality, of course, is that there is some very real science behind why music is so good for us.

Here we break down the ways in which music can be a boon to your mental health and how you can get the most out of your musical enjoyment.

Throw on a Record

The “Mozart Effect” has been a hotly contested topic for years: Do children who listen to a lot of classical music grow up smarter?

The experts seem at odds on the answer to that question, but there is some promising data on the idea that listening to music can, in fact, boost brain power.

A 2015 study out of the University of Helsinki monitored a number of participants who were both “experienced” and “inexperienced” in the realm of classical music. The researchers found that listening to just 20 minutes of classical music “enhanced the activity of genes involved in dopamine secretion and transport, synaptic neurotransmission, learning, and memory, and down-regulated the genes mediating neurodegeneration.” This was true for all participants (not only the classical music enthusiasts).

This isn’t to say that you should stick to the classical genre alone to reap the health benefits of listening to music. In fact, branching off and listening to a wide variety of musical styles may have additional brain-boosting benefits.

Researcher Patrick Wong and a team out of Northwestern University recently conducted a study to determine whether “bimusicality” has an impact on brain functionality. Wong compared how two groups of individuals responded to two different styles of music—Western and traditional Indian. The first group of individuals comprised those who grew up listening to primarily Western music while the second group comprised Indian Americans “who grew up listening to both Western music and the traditional music of India.”

This latter group Wong dubbed “bimusicals” as the results suggested they “engaged more areas of their brain when listening to music” and “looped in not only the auditory areas of the brain, but also its emotional region.”

Looking for a little musical inspiration to take on a certain task? Erin Canty over at Upworthy lists out the potential benefits of a number of musical genres and offers some suggested listening to get you started.

Pump Up the Jam While You Pump Iron

We regularly discuss the benefits exercise can have on the human brain, whether in the form of long-term and short-term memory improvement, mental illness prevention, and overall emotional health, and we recommend getting in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week.

We could go on and on about the benefits exercise brings to the human body (and we do), but we also recognize that not everyone loves strapping on their sneakers and getting their heart rates up.

If you dread every workout, maybe it’s time to add some music to the mix or to freshen up your existing fitness playlist. A 2018 study published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise suggests that music can have a powerful impact on mood during a workout. During the study, out of the 24 participants who listened to music, a podcast, or nothing at all while walking around an outdoor track, those who listened to music enjoyed the task the most. The results indicate that music “up-regulated beta waves, led to more dissociative thoughts, induced more positive affective responses, up-regulated arousal, and enhanced perceived enjoyment to a greater degree when compared to control and podcast.”

Given that “Enjoyment” is one of health.gov’s top factors for why people stick with their exercise routines, it seems like a foregone conclusion that adding some tunes to the mix is a great way to help both your body and your brain.

You should also keep in mind that even if you do already have a regular fitness routine, if music isn’t a part of your activity, you might be missing out on some great brain health benefits. In a study led by Charles Emery of Ohio State University, participants who exercised with no music prior to completing a word generation task experienced no perceivable benefit from their physical activity—the results were the same as if they had done the task without exercising first.

However, those who completed the task after exercising with music improved their scores on the word generation task by more than double. Rock on!

Head Out to a Live Show

Looking to connect with loved ones on a deeper level? Snag some concert tickets and enjoy some live music together.

Research suggests that regularly attending live concerts may extend lifespan. And a 2018 study out of the University of Western Ontario suggests that listening to live music can help create a sense of “social connectedness” among audience members. Here, the researchers reached this conclusion by measuring the brain activity of 24 individuals attending a live concert. The study’s co-lead Jessica Grahn summarizes the team’s followings as thus: “It turns out that in the live music condition, you get greater synchrony between the audience members than you do in the recorded condition or the condition where it’s recorded and you don’t have much of an audience to interact with.”

Interpersonal synchronization is nothing to shrug off. Grahn herself notes that brain synchrony can help build support networks between family members, while other studies suggest it can make collaboration with others more effective. In general, our social connections may impact our brain health as we age—finding ways to spark connections now could mean years of benefits ahead.

What better way is there to grow those connections than by heading out with friends and family to catch some live performance by your favorite musical acts?

Pick Up a Musical Instrument

Learning to play an instrument is associated with all kinds of positive brain activity. Some research suggests that adult musicians have stronger recall abilities (as do individuals who speak more than one language); their brains do not have to work as hard when performing memory-based tasks.

Likewise, as summarized by writer Emily Gersema, a study out of the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC shows that children who learn to play a musical instrument more quickly develop “maturity in areas of the brain responsible for sound processing, language development, speech perception and reading skills.” Indeed, the study suggests that learning how to play music can help offset the negative mental health-related impacts that often come with living in a lower-income neighborhood.

Indeed, even the style of music played can impact brain development. According to a study out of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig, “different processes occur in jazz and classical pianists’ brains” and proclivities for different mental skill sets develop depending on the musician’s choice of genre.

During this study, when playing the exact same piece on a silent piano, jazz musicians showcased more “flexibility” in their response times to unexpected notes while classical musicians were more comfortable with “unusual fingering” and had “fewer errors.” These findings help explain not only the difficulty musicians experience in switching between one style of play and another, they also suggest that brain development itself may be impacted.

It should be noted that the benefits of learning to play an instrument are not just limited to children. Writer Tara Bahrampour points out in a 2016 Washington Post article that adults are fully capable of learning pretty much anything children are—it just tends to take them more time since aging causes our brains to become less plastic.

But learning to play an instrument later in life still comes with many of the benefits seasoned musicians experience. According to Bahrampour, “Research shows that music stimulates the brain and enhances memory in older people. In one study, adults aged 60 to 85 without previous musical experience showed improved verbal fluency and processing speed after a few months of weekly piano lessons.”

In addition, results from published research out of the University of Liverpool suggest that even just 30 minutes of musical training “can increase the blood flow in the left hemisphere of our brain.” When looking at how musicians and non-musicians tackled music and word generation tasks in a pair of studies, the researchers found that the musicians consistently showed similar brain patterns when taking on both styles of tasks; this correlation only existed in the non-musician’s brains after they completed half an hour of musical training.

What are you waiting for? Go tickle some ivories or strum some chords. Your brain will thank you.

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