Music has always been one of the greatest joys in my life. Most of my earliest memories have something to do with music. I went to a performing arts high school (proud alum of New World School for the Arts in Miami, FL) and I studied music in college (Go Seminoles). Whether happy or sad and everything in between, I have always turned to music. It gives me a sense of calm when I feel anxious, it motivates me when I’m working out and I perform for my loyal black lab when no one is home (topic for another blog!).
That I love music so much—no matter what my mood—I wondered what science says about the impact of music on your brain. Here is what I found.
In a study published in Trends in Cognitive Science, researchers studied patients about to have surgery. One group of patients were asked to listen to music before surgery, the other group was given anti-anxiety drugs. The group who listened to music reported having less anxiety and had lower cortisol levels (the stress hormone) than those who took drugs.
There are also studies that show that listening to music stimulates the release of dopamine, giving you the same “high” as eating (but with far less calories), or watching your team win a big game. When you listen to music, regions of your brain not generally associated with listening—movement, attention, planning and memory—are all activated.
One of the most amazing and moving examples of the impact music can have is how its being used as a therapy for people suffering from Alzheimer’s. In the later stages of the disease, patients eventually stop speaking and interacting.
But when patients hear music that is familiar to them (from their youth or early adulthood) they are animated and sing along. Music seems to have the ability to get through to these patients when nothing else has. Researchers hypothesize that musical memories are stronger than other kinds of memories. Music therapy is also showing promising results in helping to alleviate agitation, depression and anxiety.
If you haven’t seen it already, I highly recommend watching Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory (available on Netflix and Amazon). It follows a group of nursing home residents with dementia and the astonishing results music therapy has on their condition.
Musicians brains ARE different
There is no better “proof” of how music impacts your brain than to study the brain itself. And that is exactly what researchers did—they studied the brains of musicians.
Brain scans actually showed that their brains are different from those of mere mortals. For starters, their brains are noticeably more symmetrical and the areas of the brain responsible for motor control, auditory processing, and spatial coordination are noticeably larger. The band of nerve fibers that allows the two hemispheres of the brain to communicate with each other, or the corpus callosum, is also larger.
Something I have always believed to be true
I don’t claim to be the smartest person, but I have long believed that I am smarter today because of all the music education I got growing up. I never excelled at math (and still don’t if I’m being honest), but I believe learning to read music help me with reasoning skills. Learning to sing in other languages fostered a lifelong love of languages and words and expression.
But don’t take my word for it. Studies have shown that teaching music in schools helps students with improved language development, improves test scores and improves spatial learning (the concept of how things work together). Student who received music education also show slightly higher IQ’s.
All music is created equal
You may take issue with that subheading. And truth be told, so do I. I certainly have my own preferences when it comes to the music I like—and the music I don't like. But it turns out that despite our individual tastes when it comes to a playlist, our brains experience music much the same way, regardless of what you're listening to.
If we all listened to the same piece of music, say Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, we may like different parts, have a variety of reactions to the music or remember different movements, but a small fMRI study showed that the parts of the brain that are activated when listening to music are the same—regardless of whether you’re listening to classical or country.
If you're wondering what I’ve been listening to while writing this article…The 50 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music as performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
The band geek