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The 18 Wonderful Ways Music Affects The Brain

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From a relatively common sense viewpoint, there should be little doubt that music (particularly learning how to play an instrument) can have a huge effect on the mind. You may be surprised as to how many ways!

Let’s take a few minutes and review a fairly comprehensive list of different ways of how music affects the brain.

#1 Music can improve your memory

It doesn’t take much scientific proof to know that music can simply make you feel good. But there are many more benefits to music than just getting you through a bad day. It is interesting to note that musical training – such as learning how to play an instrument – has been shown to increase memory skills.

It’s essentially a process that is similar to learning a new language in that it exercises your mind. Most challenges similar to this involve a good amount of memorization to be successful. That exercise can lead to better language skills, increased literacy skills, and overall an enhanced ability to remember things.

#2 Music can reduce stress and anxiety

There probably have been many times in your life where things just may not be going your way. If you think back on those events, it’s hard to deny that hearing some of your favorite music can relax you and let you step back from your issues for a little bit. Music can be a key element to help to shed some of the stress (as discussed in these 4 scientific studies) that inevitably will creep into your life. There are even studies which show how music can help you sleep better, and fall asleep faster.

Music can provide a release like no other, and that can be particularly true if you’re fortunate enough to have learned how to play an instrument. For example, picking up that guitar at the end of a long day can be the perfect anecdote to any built up tension, and you can go about your day in a much calmer state.

#3 Music affects how we interpret faces

Music can be very influential with how people perceive the faces of others. For example, if someone has been listening to pleasant and happy music, then that may have an influence over how they view another person’s face, enhancing positive nuances.

Conversely, sad music can lead to a negative perception. That is, if you’re feeling down then you may have a tendency to see other people as feeling negative as well.

What’s particularly interesting here is that studies have shown that it doesn’t take all that long for those perceptions to come about. Listening to music for as short as 15 seconds can trigger the response.

Check out the video below which shows how music influences everything from perception to pleasure, discussed by Dr. Robert Zatorre:

#4 Music and ambient noise may improve creativity

Common sense would dictate that having intense focus and being able to concentrate on a task would ensure success – even if the task is something creative, such as writing a song, creating a painting, or any other action that gets your juices flowing.

Would you be surprised to find out that the exact opposite may be true? Enhanced levels of ambient noise (around 70db) can actually make you more effective and creative. The theory is that background noise may subconsciously distract you just enough where you aren’t concentrating TOO hard (like cramming for a test).

And music most certainly be the best ‘ambient noise’ you can find. This may explain why you can be more creative and productive when you have music playing. The whole theory may be a bit complex and it may not work for everyone, but it’s intriguing to explore.

There are a lot of ambient noise examples on YouTube and you can even buy white noise ‘machines’. If you’re finding yourself hitting creative blocks or finding it hard to concentrate, it’s worth experimenting with to see if it would help you too.

#5 Music can predict your personality

Simply put, the type of music that you prefer to listen to may be a big predictor of what your personality traits are. Some of these correlations can be very surprising as well. For example, who would have ever thought that a metal head may tend to be ‘gentle and creative’?

Other relationships between music types and personality may be a bit more obvious. People that enjoy classical music may be classed as more intellectual, or ‘smart’. Of course, these alignments aren’t necessarily cold hard facts that are absolutes for everyone, but they may be more accurate than you may think.

#6 Music can make you a bad driver

For the most part, we’ve been focusing on the positive effects that music can have. To be objective, we really need to recognize some negative aspects as well. Simply put, music can make even the best driver be…not so good.

Several aspects come into play here. Music can have a tendency to have you inadvertently divert your attention from the road to ‘getting into your zone’. Additionally, it can be incredibly easy to get distracted by changing stations on your radio (or your smartphone).

The type of music you are listening to may have unintended consequences as well. Studies indicate certain types of music, like heavy metal and songs with a high tempo and more driving rhythm may lead to more aggressive driving. So yes – cranking out your favorite high energy song may make you feel really good, but your driving may really stink!

#7 Music training physically changes the brain in children

Young minds are a wonderful thing to develop, and music can play a big part in that role. Learning how to play an instrument (or most any other type of music training) may not only improve memory skills, but can also can have physical impacts as well.

In controlled study sessions comparing students that have had music training to a group that had not, measurable increases in neurological activity has been noted.

It may be technically incorrect to call the brain a ‘muscle’. At the same time, scenarios such as this show that its performance can improve as it gets exercised.

#8 Music can improve your IQ scores

Most likely you are not a member of MENSA (an organization dedicated to those with exceptional intelligence). For us mere mortals, finding ways to increase our intelligence quotient (IQ) may bring to mind pouring over all kinds of books and resources in an effort to jam as much knowledge as we can into our brains.

But what if there was an easier way? A much easier way, and one that’s pretty fun and self satisfying at the same time?

Learning to play a musical instrument is the ticket. Exercising your mind in this way can raise your IQ by several points in addition to improving overall brain function.

#9 Pleasant music can improve visual attention

In yet another way in which music has been identified to impact brain function, patients which have been affected by a stroke have been shown to exhibit increased visual attention after exposure to pleasant or happy music.

A recent study of 19 stroke patients delivered three types of aural stimuli: pleasant music, white noise, and dissonant/unpleasant music. The results displayed that the patients who listened to the pleasant music had higher activity scores on three different types of tests that measured visual activity. Bonus points – they also experienced positive moods as well.

#10 Music helps us exercise

Are you someone that has an exercise routine implemented as part of your daily routine? Or are you the type which struggles with the motivation to get to the gym a few times a week? Regardless of where you stand here, it’s hard to deny that music can help you push through barriers and have your workouts be much more effective.

Simply put, music makes you feel good and can inspire enhanced performance without even realizing it. A good example is a high tempo song that correlates to the pace of different types of cardiovascular exercise, such as bike riding or walking/running on a treadmill.

Studies have shown that tempos in the 120 to 140 beats per minute (bpm) range lead to enhanced performance, without intentionally putting in more effort.

#11 Music can be used to relieve pain

Going along the same lines that music can make you feel good, there may be evidence that it can really make you feel better. That’s from the viewpoint that music can have an analgesic effect, meaning it can actually relieve pain.

How this works is still a subject of some debate, though. Does listening to your favorite music release endorphins? Or is it simply a matter that music can divert your attention away from the pain?

Another question that isn’t fully answered is whether or not the type of music makes a difference. That is, do happy, easy listening songs always tend to have that effect, or is it more a personal preference? If you’re a metal head, does that type of music make you feel better than a style that isn’t really ‘your thing’?

#12 Music can be used to restore your hormonal balance

As we age, there may be an inevitable side effect where our hormones may get out of balance. Just as music may naturally raise neurotransmitter activity (increased brain function) or cytokines (boosted immune system), the same effect may be found with hormonal regulation as well.

The best thing about this approach is that it is noninvasive, and there are no chemicals or procedures that you would need to deal with. There should be some realistic expectations though. The effect of music on your hormones most likely would not be a complete alternative to proper hormone therapy, but every little bit helps!

#13 Jazz improv can train your brain to focus

There may be no other style of music that lends itself to developing improvisational skills like jazz does. Improvising, similar to other music related activities, may have a positive effect on brain function. In particular, it may be an exercise in developing a tendency for increased focus.

If you have ever been in a situation where you are playing ‘off the cuff’, then you may know the feeling. While you may feel like you drift off a bit and enter a different mindset when you’re improvising, measurement of brain activity has displayed that some musicians actually almost ‘turn off’ specific brain regions.

This may be a subconscious brain response that keeps distractions at bay, basically allowing creative juices to flow.

As a side note, does it have to be jazz? Of course not – any blues or rock player can develop impressive improvisational techniques as well.

#14 Music reduces stress in heart disease patients

Having heart disease can be stressful enough on its own. Maybe even more so if a patient’s condition is more advanced, which may require more complex treatment options. Open heart surgery, for example, certainly isn’t nothing to mess around with, and it should be expected that having to undergo a process like that can elevate one’s anxiety.

Music has an overall calming effect that can affect several key factors related to coronary issues. Listening to the songs you love may lower your blood pressure, decrease your heart rate, and bring an overall sense of calmness.

Stress, in particular, has been shown to be a major component in some heart related issues. Any way that it can be reduced should be added as part of a patient’s treatment plan. And what better way to do that than to jam out to your favorite tunes?

#15 Music can boost your immune system

Who would have thought that listening to music can have a big impact on how well your body can fight off disease?

It’s true. Studies have been conducted that display evidence of music enhancing the amount of antibodies in your system. The presence of antibodies can be determined by measuring the level of cytokines in your blood. Cytokines are a critical component as their purpose is to allow communication between the cells that make up your immune system.

Subjects during this study were asked to simply sing for a period of one hour. Their cytokine levels were measured both before and after the duration of the music activity. Levels were shown to have increased after the hour of belting out your favorite songs, which means that the overall effectiveness of the immune system may have increased.

#16 Music improves fine motor skills

Remember Guitar Hero? That game where you had a guitar-like controller and had to time button presses to a song on the screen? One of the unintended ‘benefits’ of the game may have been an increase in motor skills.

Take that same idea and apply to actually learning to play any type of musical instrument. It may be safe to say that, in order to play them correctly, most instruments involve a certain level of coordination between certain physical elements. Practicing increases that coordination, meaning that fine motor skills are enhanced as well.

Playing the guitar, for example, relies on being able to fret a note in the right way before striking the strings (either by using a pick or playing fingerstyle). Keyboard players have to strike multiple keys at the same time to keep from sounding sloppy, and coordination for drummers is an absolute must.

#17 Music therapy improves quality of life

The term ‘quality of life’ is often heard in discussion regarding people that may have currently incurable conditions, such as dementia. Patients who have unfortunately developed these types of illnesses may experience decreased quality of life, possibly because they lack the normalized coping skills that most unaffected people possess.

Benefits that may come from music therapy as part of a comprehensive treatment program include enhanced self esteem along with reduced depression, stress, and anxiety. Another benefit may be an increased level of overall cognitive skills as well.

As conditions such as dementia progresses, personal awareness of how these factors may impact quality of life may become less apparent. This is even more of a case of why music therapy can be so important – they may feel better and get through their lives easier without even realizing it.

#18 Music therapy is effective in helping patients with Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease is a condition where music has been shown to have an incredible effect on many of its unfortunate symptoms. Many patients that are in advanced stages can tend to completely withdraw. In these cases most forms of communication and visual recognition can be severely impacted.

There have been many instances where those that have Alzheimer’s react in a very positive way to a piece of music that was familiar to them in their past. Many non-verbal patients have been known to ‘light up’ and even sing along. Music therapy has been shown to be amazingly effective in cases where other efforts to ‘break through the wall’ may not have been successful.

Bottom Line

It’s amazing how many ways music can affect the human brain, and how it can have positive impacts on so many different aspects of our lives.

The science behind the impact of music is still in it’s infancy, we’re only at the beginning of our ability to see what is going on inside our brains through medical technology and innovation. It’s clear that as technology improves, our understanding of why music plays such an important role in our lives will start to become clearer.

These are all just more reasons why learning to play music – regardless of your age – can be a huge benefit to your life and also those around you.

If learning a musical instrument isn’t possible, there are also some great technology apps aimed at improving your wellbeing, like mindharp which lets you play music simply by tapping your finger!

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences too. What impact has music had in changing the way you see the world? Let’s start a conversation, feel free to leave your comments below!

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7 thoughts on “The 18 Wonderful Ways Music Affects The Brain”

  1. Hello Jean –
    This was a fabulous article and provided some really super awesome ways that music, particularly learning an instrument can really have some powerfully positive affects in the brain and beyond. It’s truly a miracle and blessing as to the huge benefits of music. Being a musician myself, I know and FEEL the benefits. Thanks for sharing such valuable insights here. 🙂

    1. Hi LT, thanks for your kind words! I absolutely agree. It’s exciting to see how the science and research behind music is starting to evolve into actual therapies. As a musician getting up on stage and emotionally connecting with an audience, it almost feels like an out of body experience. 🙂

    1. Aah, thanks so much! You’re absolutely welcome to share a link to this article, I’m glad it’s helpful!

  2. What a great resource, Jean! This is such a thorough piece, full of interesting and new knowledge on the topic. I’m more than happy to share this as a link on WorkplaceStory.com in the additional resources section of a recent article on music in the workplace. Keep up the excellent writing, and best wishes to you!

    1. Hi Patricia! Aah, you’re very kind. Thanks so much for sharing my post, I’m really glad to hear you enjoyed reading it!

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