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Music and Your Brain
The Mozart effect is about more than Mozart
Do you groove to the seventies disco beat of Anita Ward ringing her bell? Or is sitting in front of the fireplace, sipping a snifter of brandy and bemoaning Aida’s fate as the stone forever entombs her your thing? Either way, listening to music that you enjoy is good for your brain. And making music is even better!
Crank up the Radio: Music Does your Brain Good
When you listen to the music that you love, your brain and body reap the rewards. You have probably noticed that your anxiety level plummets the moment that your favorite song comes on the radio. Scientists have reported an array of health benefits that are associated with listening to music: reducing blood pressure, mitigating acute and chronic pain, improving sleep quality, elevating mood, sharpening mental alertness, boosting memory and enhancing cognitive (thinking) function.
Listening to music has the potential to deliver therapeutic benefits that can be quite dramatic. Epilepsy, a brain disorder that causes seizures, may sometimes become resistant to medication. In 2020, one group of Canadian doctors tested an unorthodox adjuvant treatment and prescribed a daily dose of Mozart listening to their patients (Sonata for Two Pianos in D major, K. 448). Listening to Mozart worked wonders and the scientists reported a significant reduction in seizure frequency. In another report, published in 2021, Dartmouth scientists used machine listening algorithms to demonstrate that the same Mozart piece (you can watch/listen here (
)) has a calming effect on the brain's frontal lobes. And, even if you’re rapidly bored by classical music (perish the thought!), the beneficial effects don’t take long to accrue. The scientists discovered that it took less than two minutes of Mozart to affect the brain.
Although few composers deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as Mozart, his music is not to everyone’s taste. And that’s OK. It turns out that it’s the music that you like best that’s best for your brain. And the genre of music (from classical to country) or the musical artist (Creedence Clearwater Revival to Kanye West) that’s best for your brain depends on the unique wiring of your brain. Your brain’s ‘fingerprint’ determines your individual preference, just like your unique palate determines your favorite flavor of ice cream.
When you hear music that truly resonates with you it may even give you the chills. A group of French scientists, curious about this phenomenon, discovered the manner by which emotionally moving music lights up your brain. The researchers recruited a group of music lovers and played them their absolute favorite songs. When the volunteers reported the magic moment (when the music gave them the chills) the scientists recorded their brain waves (Electroencephalograms or EEGs). The music affected the volunteers in stereotypical ways: First, their supplementary motor areas (the part of the brain that plans movement) shivered with anticipation at the rhythm. Then, their right temporal areas (the part of the brain that decodes non-verbal communication) melted with the melody.
Music Makes the Healthy Brain Stronger
When you enjoy your favorite music, large swathes of your brain become increasingly active and the circuitry that connects different areas of your brain (functional connectivity) becomes more resilient. The result is that your ability to think creatively increases and your memory becomes more powerful. In particular, the emotional strength of an old, familiar tune has a beneficial effect on mood and improves the ability to recollect distant memories. Music that stems from the same time period that you are trying to recall is the most potent in this regard. For example, listening to an old rock anthem might bring you back to the first concert you attended with your spouse.
But, if you want to maximize the health benefit that listening to music has on your brain, you should step out of your comfort zone. You can still stick with music that you enjoy while mixing it up a little. This is especially important as you get older. Playing new music, the kind that your kids or grandkids listen to, challenges the brain. It might be difficult at first, but unfamiliarity forces the brain to struggle to understand the new sound. This type of brain exercise has been demonstrated to improve cognitive abilities. It will also foster intergenerational bonding and strengthen relationships (which in itself has salutary effects).
According to a 2016 study by a group of Texan scientists, listening to your tried and true favorites helps your brain in different ways than listening to new music. The researchers asked twelve volunteers to choose a song that evoked a strong, positive emotional response. Another, different, dozen volunteers weren’t given a choice of what to listen to: Unfamiliar music (a baroque piece by Bach and a Japanese classical opera selection) was played for them. The researchers then studied the brain activity of both groups with a special MRI that identifies both brain structure and activity (functional MRI or fMRI).
The researchers discovered that familiar music resulted in different brain activation patterns than novel music. The self-selected pieces (which were familiar and unique to each volunteer) caused significant activity in the emotion and memory centers (limbic system and hippocampus) of the subjects’ brains. In contrast, novel, unfamiliar music activated attention and memory areas (prefrontal lobe and hippocampus) in the volunteers.
Tending your garden
The wiring of your brain is not set in stone. Brain cells (neurons) and the circuitry that connects far flung neurons changes throughout your life. This process is called neuroplasticity and occurs through a combination of growth and pruning, much like a well maintained garden. When you listen to your preferred music, regardless of the genre, you experience profound personal thoughts and memories. This occurs in your brain because the functional connections between far flung areas of the brain is activated. One specific circuit, called the default mode network, is crucial during internally-focused thoughts. It turns out that this circuit is most active when listening to your preferred music. Another connection that’s strengthened while listening to your favorite music is between the auditory (hearing) brain area, the limbic system and the hippocampus (brain area responsible for memory and emotion).
The strengthening of brain circuitry has been demonstrated by brain imaging. One researcher involved in testing the brain response to music, Jonathan Burdette, M.D., was surprised that different types of music, which can vary in acoustic complexity and the presence or absence of lyrics, had such similar effects on the brains of test subjects. In their 2014 study, Burdette and his fellow investigators studied the effects of music on 21 volunteers. The scientists first determined what type of music the test subjects most enjoyed from among five genres (classical, country, rap, rock and Chinese opera) and which song or piece of music they had previously named as their personal favorite. The 21 people then listened to music while undergoing a special type of MRI that elucidates brain activity (fMRI). The scientist determined that the listeners' preferences, not the type of music they were listening to, had the greatest impact on brain connectivity.
What do music and sex have in common?
Neuroscientific researchers are currently investigating how and why the brain translates a structured sequence of sounds, such as music, into an enjoyable experience. Significant evidence has pointed towards the reward centers in the brain, which are activated by a signalling molecule called dopamine. At first blush, this is puzzling, because music does not provide any measurable survival value, as primary pleasures (such as food or sex) do. Why would music, an abstract pleasure, provide the brain with a reward using the same circuitry and signaling molecules (dopaminergic system) as more concrete pleasures?
In order to elucidate this question, one group of scientists tested 27 volunteers. A third of the test subjects were provided with medication that would enhance the level of brain dopamine, another third were administered a drug that blocked the dopamine in their brains and the final third were given placebo (sugar pill).
The experimenters determined that the hedonic experience caused by the test subjects listening to their favorite music was enhanced by dopamine and decreased when dopamine was blocked. Thus, the researchers determined that just like during sex, the release of dopamine at brain synapses (connections) had a causal role in musical pleasure (enjoying a piece of music) and motivation (being willing to spend money for it).
Listening to Music Helps Heal the Sick Brain
Music therapy is gaining increasing acceptance within the medical community. It’s one of the few treatments available that can be administered by a lay person (you can play music for grandma next time you visit). It has no known side effects, so it doesn’t need a warning label.
If a loved one’s memory is failing, either due to advancing age or the onset of dementia, music can stop the decline and may even improve memory function. If memory stealing dementia, such as Alzheimer's disease, progresses so far that your loved one needs to be institutionalized, clinicians and researchers have also reported that music may be useful for easing his or her isolation. The therapist, in concert with the patient’s loved ones, can customize a playlist of songs that the patient enjoyed most prior to his or her illness. If this information is unknown, playlists featuring songs popular in the patient’s youth may have similar beneficial effects.
Music may be used as a treatment for people with autism spectrum disorder. It may activate the neural (brain) circuitry that governs emotional response. In a 2019 publication, Canadian scientists hypothesized that listening to music taps into the circuit that connects the midbrain (an evolutionarily primitive area (part of the brainstem) that governs heart rate, breathing, etc.) to the limbic system (parahippocampal gyrus, amygdala, ventral striatum/nucleus accumbens ((all of which govern emotion)) and orbitofrontal cortex (part of the brain responsible for decision making and focusing attention). By the same mechanism, listening to music may benefit the brain health of people with social and behavioral abnormalities.
Music therapy has been used with clinical success, providing therapeutic benefits in the treatment of brain injured patients. In certain German clinics, listening to music is commonly prescribed to restore neuroplasticity (the ability of brain cells to adapt to different roles) in the brain. Music has been shown to assist in the re-establishment of damaged connections between circuits of injured brains. Doctors have determined that the rehabilitation process for people who have had strokes, brain surgery or traumatic brain injuries is facilitated by listening to music, whether familiar or novel, old or new.
In a 2021 study, Danish scientists studied the effects of music in combination with psychedelic drugs in the treatment of certain patients with drug resistant depression. They found that psilocybin, the psychoactive component of magic mushrooms made the brain more amenable to the effects of music. After administering magic mushrooms they played music for the volunteers: Mozart's laudate dominum (
) and Elgar's enigma variations (
). The researchers then performed psychological assessments on the volunteers and found improvement in several domains. They determined that the combination of psychedelics and music increased wonder, transcendence and peacefulness.
The Mozart Effect: Making Music Builds a Better Brain
Some neurosurgeons have noticed that musicians, especially accomplished classical players and composers, may be endowed with superior capacity to recover from brain surgery, trauma or other adverse occurrence. This may be due to super-strong connections between the two halves of the brain and enhanced neuroplasticity (the ability of brain cells and wiring to grow and change).
Listening to music is good for your brain, making music is great for your brain.
“Mozart Effect” has a nice ring to it. But the phenomenon may just have easily been called the “Pink Floyd Effect” or the “Porgy and Bess” effect. Scientific evidence has shown that making music, practicing music and singing leads to improvement in brain function and structure. The early learning phase produces the most dramatic results: One research team reported that, after six months of training, anatomic changes were observed in the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for memory) of a group of young adults.
Johns Hopkins researchers have explored the strengthening effects of music on the brain. They recruited dozens of jazz performers and rappers to improvise music while lying down inside an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine to determine which areas of their brains light up. One researcher explained: “Music is structural, mathematical and architectural. It’s based on relationships between one note and the next. You may not be aware of it, but your brain has to do a lot of computing to make sense of it.”
Researchers at Vanderbilt University reported that musicians gain proficiency in “divergent thinking, which is the ability to come up with new solutions to open-ended, multifaceted problems.” The neuroscientists hypothesize that test subjects who played music have stronger communication between far flung parts of their brains. Thus, musicians have an enhanced ability to consider complex problems and devise more creative solutions than non musicians.
Musicians have demonstrated almost supernatural strength of one circuit called the arcuate fasciculus (neurons (brain cells) that connect the auditory and motor regions (parts of the brain responsible for hearing and movement). Those adept at making music also bolster their brain wiring across another area of the brain called the intraparietal sulcus, which develops neuron-cables that connect sensory regions of the brain to creative thought centers. Altogether, this helps the brain create novel synergistic circuits, which neuroscientists have dubbed, “multimodal integration regions.''
Piano playing and the Brain
The cognitive demands of learning and playing the piano may restructure your brain. Due to neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to rewire itself) the brain is malleable. Using fMRI, neuroscientists have demonstrated that the circuitry of piano players’ brains develop a different structure than non piano players. The pianists had more vigorous connections across the corpus callosum (bridge between the right and left hemispheres of the brain). Additionally, the researchers discovered that the piano players had more efficient connections within the frontal lobe (executive function area of the brain).
In their 2018 study, a group of Chinese researchers expounded upon the benefits to the brain of piano playing. They reported that musical performance helped the brain take advantage of the plasticity of the neuronal (brain cell) circuits that integrate the motor, sensory and cognitive systems. The scientists compared the functional brain networks of 29 volunteers before and after 24 weeks of piano training (all participants had been novices) with the functional brain network of 27 matched participants who did not receive any training.
The researchers reported increased functional connectivity and circuit plasticity of the visual and auditory systems (sensorimotor network and auditory-motor network) in participants after musical training when compared with the controls. The structure of the anatomical connections was also more stable and useful in the group that learned and practiced playing piano. The musical training induced enhanced plasticity with local interaction and global integration between musical performance-related regions. In other words, learning to play the piano and regular practice may alter the wiring of the brain to become more useful, efficient and resilient: playing piano helps build a better brain.
Drumming and the Brain
In their 2019 investigation, German researchers discovered numerous benefits that playing drums conferred on the brain. The researchers tested 20 drummers (played at a professional level for an average of 17 years and practiced for more than 10 hours per week). They examined the volunteers using various MRI imaging techniques to determine the structure and function of the brain. The scientists then compared the musicians’ brains with a group of 24 non musicians.
The scientist discovered differences in the front part of the corpus callosum (a superhighway of connection that links the two halves (hemispheres) of the brain connects and whose front part is responsible for motor planning) between the drummers and non musicians. The drummers had fewer but thicker white matter cells (cables) that connected the right and left brain hemispheres. The thicker cables allows musicians to exchange information between the hemispheres more quickly than the other group of volunteers. The researchers also found that the thickness of the corpus callosum fibers was proportional to the skill level and performance of the drummers. Getting the two sides of your brain (the left side is often more logical and the right side is often more artistic) communicating more efficiently improves creativity and problem solving.
The motor cortex (part of the brain that controls movement) of the drummers was also reported to be more efficient than that of the non musicians. The scientists requested the volunteers to perform a movement that did not include drumming or music. The drummers’ brains were able to remain quieter while accomplishing the task, a phenomenon called “sparse sampling.” This indicated that the musicians had a brain organization that was more adept in creating and controlling movement than their non musical peers. And, wouldn’t we all like our brains to be a little more efficient?
Making music is like brain rehab
A team of neuroscientists from Boston suggests that making music can be of therapeutic benefit. The researchers believe that repeatedly practicing and associating motor actions with specific sound and visual patterns (musical notation), while receiving continuous multisensory feedback, strengthens connections between different parts of the brain. In other words, reading the notes or lyrics (visual and executive areas of the brain), playing the music or singing the song (motor areas of the brain) and then determining whether it sounds right (auditory and executive areas of the brain) strengthens a circuit that spans a vast region of the brain.
The brain circuits are strengthened because the connections between the brain cells are able to change (neuroplasticity). They argue that training these neural networks for medical purposes may improve behavioral and cognitive functions elsewhere in the brain, in the same way that running a 5K helps more than just your leg muscles. The strong and resilient wiring network built by making music can be used for other information too and may form the brain infrastructure that other circuits build from. For this reason, music making or practice may be an effective interactive treatment to mitigate or improve neurological and developmental disorders (such as stroke, trauma or learning disabilities) as well as cognitive decline that may be associated with dementia or normal aging.