By Jay Clark
Whether you know it or not, music has probably helped you in one way or another at some point in your life. It may have gotten you through a tough breakup, amped you up for an athletic performance, guided you through an all-nighter at work school, or proved useful in any other myriad situations.
What’s particularly interesting about music is that it can be as therapeutic to play as it is to listen to. After all, nailing a song on the piano or strumming along perfectly to your favorite song on the guitar requires a level of focus and nowness not present in almost any other pursuit. For this reason, playing music can serve as an effective way to detach yourself from everyday stresses.
Other than helping you destress (which is essential for quality sleep, as a side note), there’s a growing library of data showing that music is beneficial to brain development — especially in young children. Specifically, these benefits relate to improved long-term memory, better language skills, and faster reaction times. While young children may benefit the most from a development standpoint, these findings can nevertheless be applied to people of all ages.
All this is to say that a consensus has been reached: music, through listening or playing (or both), is a beneficial addition to anyone’s life. To gain a deeper understanding of all the reasons why music deserves to be a larger part of your life — and why your brain will thank you for it — continue reading below.
What Happens to Your Brain When It’s Exposed to Music
Why do different songs resonate with different people? Why do some people get goosebumps when they hear a song they like? Music is capable of producing all sorts of reactions within us — a result of the explosion of brain activity that happens when you listen to or play music.
When you’re exposed to music, different parts of your brain work together to process what’s being heard or played. In total, the following parts of your brain all play a part in music processing:
- Frontal Lobe
- Temporal Lobe
- Broca’s Area
- Wernicke’s Area
- Occipital Lobe
- Nucleus Accumbens
- Corpus Callosum
When you think of the complexity of music, you can begin to understand why so many parts of the brain are involved in its processing — and, consequently, why its benefits are so wide-spanning. After all, you’re not just “hearing” music — you’re also comprehending rhythm, keeping up with tempo, processing the meaning of lyrics, relating the meaning of lyrics to experiences in your own life, and so on.
As such, processing music requires more than just your brain’s temporal lobe, which processes what you hear. You also need your Wernicke’s Area to process speech, your Hippocampus to relate and imprint memories, your Amygdala to process emotions, and your Putamen to process rhythm, just to name a few examples. Of all the ways in which music affects your brain, however, its effect on memory is worth isolating — particularly as it relates to degenerative neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
For example, two professors from the University of Central Florida — neuroscientist Kiminobu Sugaya and world-renowned violinist Ayako Yonetani — found music to be effective in lighting up the brains of even late-stage, otherwise unresponsive Alzheimer’s patients.
Sugaya, co-instructor of the highly sought-after “Music and the Brain” course at The Burnett Honors College alongside Yonetani, described the effect in the following way:
“Usually in the late stages, Alzheimer’s patients are unresponsive, but once you put in the headphones that play [their favorite] music, their eyes light up. They start moving and sometimes singing. The effect lasts maybe 10 minutes or so even after you turn off the music.”
Even more impressive is that the memory benefits aren’t tied to any particular kind of music, so as long as the music was listened to earlier in life, Sugaya adds:
“If you play someone’s favorite music, different parts of the brain light up. That means memories associated with music are emotional memories, which never fade out — even in Alzheimer’s patients.”
These findings illustrate perfectly the synergistic effects of music on the brain, helping those most in need retrieve precious memories and experience a lasting boost in mood. So as you listen to your next Spotify playlist, be appreciative that you’re treating your brain to a multi-part workout — one that is laying the groundwork for improved cognitive function, better memory recollection, and myriad other benefits all throughout your life — even into old age and in the face of neurodegenerative disease.
But what if you play music as a hobby — or even professionally? Are musicians’ brains superior to non-musicians’ brains? Let’s take a look below.
Playing Music is Good for your Brain
Considering the explosion of brain activity that occurs from just hearing music, you can well imagine the heightened effects of actually playing music. Playing an instrument recruits additional brain processes relating to actively reading music, coordinating with other band members, creating original compositions, and generally making sound from scratch.
These responsibilities help musicians to develop their brains in ways that people in other occupations or pastimes simply can’t (or don’t need to). For example, very few activities require the combined efforts of memory, fine motor skill, and coordination like playing music (for other ideas, however, read our article on 10 Hobbies to Try at Home).
For musicians to get to the point where they’re able to perform a song on command, many steps are involved. First, they have to actually write the song, which taps into a whole other area of brainpower. Or, if learning a non-original song (such as one by another musician), they have to either learn how to play it through written musical notes or by ear. Regardless, once they can play a song properly with notes in front of them or alongside the original recording, musicians then have to memorize the song to the point where they can play it without any kind of aid.
Memorization doesn’t just mean being able to perform by themselves in their rooms either, it also means being able to perform in high-pressure situations, such as performing in front of a live audience. If you’ve ever tried public speaking, you know how hard just speaking can be in front of a live audience, regardless of your preparation. Performing music live is like public speaking, but with the added responsibilities of instrument playing, voice modulation, and coordination among band members.
Therefore, musicians must memorize their performances to a level where they’re not thrown off by even the most daunting of factors, a level of memorization that almost no other activity requires. It makes sense, then, why musicians have been shown to have superior working memory compared to non-musicians. There’s also data showing that the memory benefits of playing music extend to long-term memory.
Of course, properly playing music requires a lot more than just good memory- vocal control, fine motor skills, and reaction time all play a part in performance as well. This is why children are encouraged to pick up an instrument as early as possible.
While younger children certainly stand to benefit more from a development standpoint, don't let that stop you from picking up an instrument! Playing music benefits anyone at any age. So don't worry if you weren’t blessed with the hands of Jimi Hendrix or the vocal chops of Stevie Nicks; your brain will love you just for listening to music, too.
Listening to Music is also Good for your Brain
Beyond just helping improve and maintain memory, even in the face of neurodegenerative diseases, music serves as one of the most powerful forms of therapy in existence. More than just acting as a form of therapy, music can also be used as a versatile healing tool.
According to Johns Hopkins, listening to music can help:
- Reduce anxiety
- Blood pressure
- Reduce pain
- Improve sleep quality
- Improve mood
- Improve alertness
- Improve memory
There are all sorts of situations that exemplify these benefits in action. For example, how many times have you relied on music to get through your workout? You may be exhausted, mentally defeated, or generally without any more motivation to finish those final few miles on your run, but suddenly, thanks to an upbeat song in your headphones, you feel refueled.
Or think about how many professional sports teams walk out to the stadium with high-energy music. Not only is this to help pump up the athletes to make them play better, but it’s also to boost the mood of the game’s attendees and get them more excited about the action.
On the flip side of the spectrum, music can also help people shift down from a busy day, get ready for bed, and generally relax. You only have to look at the number of relaxation playlists available on Spotify to understand how many people rely on music for this purpose. There are even playlists to listen to while you sleep, speaking to music’s ability to promote higher sleep quality as well.
Given its innate ability to manipulate states of being, the healing power of music hasn’t gone unnoticed by the medical community either. There are even records indicating the use of musical therapy as far back as the 18th century. Today, however, the wide-spanning capabilities of music in a therapeutic setting are far better understood, with modern-day music therapy being used to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and even social needs.
Outside of providing medical relief, music is also simply the lifeblood of good times and fun experiences. Music helps with all sorts of social situations, from livening up a party to backtracking a couple’s first kiss to forming a new friendship.
It can also help to better preserve memories, like that amazing road trip you took with friends. Years could go by and you could forget the road trip even happened, but when the right song comes on — a song that played on repeat throughout the trip — you're instantly transported back to the fun times you had.
And The Beat Goes On
As a musician, you should be proud of yourself. More than almost any other profession in the world, your contributions help people feel better, live healthier, work harder, and remember precious moments. Whether you're playing on stage, dancing in the crowd, or jamming in your garage, protect what matters most — your ears — with a pair of musicians’ ear plugs.