How Music Rewires the Brain
Music can make us feel strong emotions, but did you know it’s healthy for our brains as well? According to neuroscientist Larry Sherman, Ph.D. of Oregon Health & Science University, music benefits our brains in a big way. Playing and listening to music exercises many of our cognitive functions in ways that we may not expect. In this article, we’ll explore the relationship between music and the brain, and how music may help to maintain or increase cognitive health.
Music and cognitive health
Interacting with music in different ways exercises different cognitive skills! There are multiple ways to incorporate more music into your life for your cognitive health. Here are a few ways that musical activities can impact your cognitive health:
Listening to music
Recent studies have shown that simply listening to music is good for cognitive function. One study included participants who were experiencing self-observed cognitive decline. The participants were asked to listen to music for twelve minutes daily for twelve weeks. They showed improvements in memory, mood, executive functioning, and sleep. They even showed decreased biomarkers of aging in blood tests.
Practicing an instrument
Studies show that playing an instrument may help to prevent dementia. This seems particularly true when an individual plays an instrument from a young age. Practicing an instrument is an immense cognitive challenge, in which we call upon skills such as memory, visual-spatial awareness, attention, and motor skills. According to Dr. Sherman, this intensive cognitive practice can help our brains to generate new neurons, strengthen the synapses between neurons, and strengthen the myelin sheaths of our cells. This means that our brain gets more efficient and strong each time we practice music.
While playing an instrument all throughout life seems to provide the greatest cognitive benefits, learning to play an instrument later in life may also provide protection against neurodegenerative diseases. A study in Spain found that participants who started learning an instrument at age 59 or later experienced cognitive benefits. The key difference was that these benefits were more transient. Once the participant stopped practicing the instrument, the cognitive benefits seemed to subside.
Playing music with others
Music has been a staple of the human experience for thousands of years, and a communal activity that groups would participate in together. Music can bond people together in a unique way.
MRIs have shown that music triggers endorphin and dopamine production. These neurotransmitters are great for our brains, and for our sense of happiness, well-being, and belonging. The effect is compounded when we play music with others – we may feel a sense of belonging and delight. We know that social connection is great for cognitive health. Imagine how powerful it could be to combine the benefits of music and the benefits of connecting with others!
If you’re already practicing an instrument or know how to play a few songs, playing music with others can be a great next step not only for music practice but for your cognitive health.
Training your ear
An exercise like Sound Check may be helpful for people who want to improve their auditory processing. This exercise plays different notes, and then the patient must determine the difference between the two notes. For example, they must figure out which sound was louder or higher in pitch. This type of exercise may strengthen our brains in the same way that music does, and improve our musical ability.
Next time you listen to or play music, remember this powerful connection between music and the brain. Music is something that most humans naturally tend to respond to and enjoy. It’s good for our emotions, good for our cognitive functions, and allows us to bond with others. Whether you’re playing music or listening to it, incorporating more music into your life may be a great way to stimulate your cognition and contribute to maintaining the health of your brain.