We all love music. But did you know that listening to music is good for you? It benefits the heart on a few levels: it lowers blood pressure, reduces heart rate, and decreases stress hormones in the blood. Why do people wear headphones on the treadmill, or take spin, Zumba, or aerobics classes? Music activates the motor system. It can improve workout endurance and increase our enjoyment of activities.
Besides getting us moving or helping us wind down after a busy day, listening to music has several cognitive benefits with the potential to help us prevent diseases and conditions that affect brain health. For some, it may also improve mental performance.
Just like sounds, music lights up certain parts of the brain. Scientists have seen active areas of the brain light up in MRI scans. Music activates the auditory cortex in the temporal lobes close to your ears and activates almost all brain regions and networks, including those involved in well-being, learning, cognitive function, quality of life, and happiness. With a lot of notes, layers, voices, and other sounds to keep track of, our brain has to do a lot of computing to make sense of it all. And that’s a good thing!
Of survey respondents who attend musical performances, 69% rated their brain health as “excellent” or “very good” compared to participants who did not attend performances or did not attend recently. Of those who reported exposure to music as a child, 68% rated their ability to learn new things as “excellent” or “very good” compared to those who were not exposed to music.
Music has the power to take us back to a specific time in our lives, like songs we danced to at our wedding with a partner or parent, or from our first school dance. Recalling familiar music helps keep up our memory—and some precious moments—alive.
In one study, researchers gave people tasks that required them to read and then recall short lists of words. Those who were listening to classical music outperformed those who worked in silence or with white noise. The study also tracked how fast people could perform simple processing tasks. Mozart helped people complete the task faster and more accurately!
Playing a musical instrument has been associated with a lower risk of developing dementia. While music can’t reverse memory loss experienced by people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, it could slow cognitive decline and help people remember aspects of their lives.
Learning and concentration
Practicing music involves several cognitive challenges, such as memorizing musical passages and long periods of controlled attention. It also enhances impulse control; people that have a high measure of self-control have better outcomes in multiple aspects of life.
Musical training helps children mature emotionally and intellectually. A study of school-aged children showed even a brief, intense period of orchestral music training (10 lessons over three months) had a positive impact on inhibitory control.
Anticipating listening to music may even make you want to learn more. In one study, people were more motivated to learn when they expected to listen to music as a reward.
However, one study found the influence of music on intellectual performance depends on the personality of the listener, the difficulty of the task, and the complexity of the music. Those with a low need for external stimulation improved their mental performance with instrumental music, while some with a high need for stimulation did worse when listening to this music while engaging in a mental task. Lyrical music is more complex and increases arousal, suggesting that a moderate level of arousal produces optimal performance. Performance drops when there is too little or too much arousal.
Emoting and connecting with others
We might have groaned when our parents dragged us to those music lessons, but you can’t deny that there are benefits to learning how to express ourselves through music. The parts of the brain involved in emotion synchronize and activate during emotional music.
Music can elevate our mood and reduce stress. When listening to or performing music, we interpret and express emotional content in the music. Reflective, thoughtful, and gentle music can increase our sense of empathy and improve our ability to recognize the emotional and mental states of others and respond appropriately.
Besides connecting with others, being able to perform music can build confidence. A strong sense of self-confidence is associated with positive self-image, and high self-esteem can lead to a healthier lifestyle. While rock stars may not always have the healthiest lifestyles, they sure look confident on stage, don’t they?
Music keeps you young
Neural plasticity, or making new neural connections, is the foundation of a learning brain, and keeps us young. Music is associated with higher rates of happiness and good cognitive function for adults over 50. In a randomized clinical trial, adults with self-observed cognitive impairment who listened to 12 minutes of music every day for three months showed a decrease in a cellular biomarker of aging in the blood, as well as improvements in memory, mood, sleep, and executive cognitive function.
In another study conducted in 2019, researchers employed musical improvisation to explore its ability to improve memory in older adults. Results indicated that musical improvisation enhanced memory, especially when the music was emotional.
While we all have our favourite songs, artists and genres, listening to newer music over time can help challenge our brain to understand new sounds. And with new songs always sampling from the old, you might find memory serves well when telling your grandchildren where that song lyric or hook came from!