Music: Build a Better Brain

Music: Build a Better Brain

Music: Build a Better Brain 


Listening to music is good for you; body and soul:


Research has shown that listening to music has multiple beneficial effects. For the body, it can reduce blood pressure. Music has also been found to lessen acute and chronic pain. 

Music is also good brain medicine:

One group of researchers reported that daily listening to Mozart reduced seizures in people who suffer from Epilepsy.

Scientists have reported that listening to music may improve cognitive (thinking) function. It also has been found to reduce anxiety and other emotional distress. It may be beneficial for people with social and behavioral abnormalities. Music may elevate mood and sharpens mental alertness. 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. Music has been reported to improve sleep quality. 

Which type of music is the best for your brain?


It turns out that the genre of music (from classical to country) or the musical artist (Creedence Clearwater Revival to Kanye West) that is best for your brain depends on your brain. It is based on your individual preference, like your favorite flavour of ice cream.


Music helps your brain by strengthening important circuits. 


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 preferred music. Another connection that is strengthened while listening to your favorite music is between auditory (hearing) brain areas and the hippocampus (brain area responsible for memory and emotion). 

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.


Old (Familiar) vs New (Novel)


Listening to old music helps your brain in different ways than listening to new music. Playing new music, the kind 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).

The emotional strength of an old, familiar tune, has a strong effect on mood and improving distant memories. Music that stems from the same time period that you are trying to recall is the most potent. Listening to an old rock anthem might bring you back to the first concert you attended with your spouse.

A 2016 study by a group of Texan scientists suggested that familiar, positive music increases activation and functional connectivity in the brain. The researchers requested that 12 volunteers choose a song that evoked a strong, positive emotional response. Unfamiliar music (a baroque piece by Bach and a Japanese classical opera selection) was played for another group. The researchers then studied the brain activity of both groups with 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 of the subjects’ brains. In contrast, novel, unfamiliar music activated attention and memory areas in the volunteers. 

The scientists suggested that music, whether familiar or novel, old or new, may provide targeted therapeutic benefits to those recovering from a stroke. 


Why do you enjoy music?


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 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 is good for your brain, playing music is great for your brain.



Learning to play music may change the structure and function of the brain of young adults


after 6 months of training changes were observed in the hippocampus (part of brain responsibile for memory)


Scientific evidence has shown that playing and practicing music leads to  improvement in brain function and structure. Johns Hopkins researchers explored the strengthening function of music on the brain. They recruited dozens of jazz performers and rappers 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 dramatic 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 music also develop powerful circuitry called the intraparietal sulcus between areas that connect sensory regions of the brain to creative thought centers (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 reported on 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.


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 (connects the two hemispheres 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.

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.


Music therapy


Music therapy has been used with clinical success in the treatment of brain injured patients. In Germany, music therapy is commonly employed 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. Clinicians have determined that the rehabilitation process for people who have had strokes, brain surgery or traumatic brain injuries is facilitated by music therapy.

A team of neuroscientists from Boston also suggest that 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. The brain circuits are strengthened because the connections between the brain cells is able to change (neuroplasticity). They argue that training these neural networks for medical purposes may improve behavioral and cognitive functions elsewhere in the brain. These researchers suggest that music making (playing an instrument or singing)  improves the brain connectivity and associations between auditory (hearing) and motor (movement) functions such as vocal motor functions. Thus, 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 associated with dementia or normal aging.


Music and Memory

Clinicians have found music to be useful for easing the isolation of people with memory stealing dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease. The therapist, in concert with the patient’s loved ones customizes a playlist of songs that the patient enjoyed most prior to his or her illness. If this information is not available, playlists featuring songs popular in the patient’s youth can have similar beneficial effects.