Why is music good for the brain? – Harvard

Those are pretty impressive results, to be sure. However, this 20-minute online survey has some limitations. For one, it included 3,185 US adults ages 18 and older; that is a small number if you are extrapolating to 328 million people across the country. For another, it is really a survey of people’s opinions. For example, although people might report their brain health as “excellent,” there was no objective measure of brain health such as an MRI scan, or even a test to measure their cognition.

Lastly, even if the ratings were true, the findings are only correlations. They do not prove that, for example, it was the exposure to music as a child that led to one’s improved ability to learn new things. It may be equally likely that those children brought up in more affluent households were both more likely to be exposed to music and to be given a good education that led to their being able to easily learn new things later in life.

But let’s assume that the results of the AARP survey are indeed true. How can music have such impressive brain effects? Although we don’t know the answers for sure, developments in cognitive neuroscience over the last few years have allowed us to speculate on some possible mechanisms.

Music activates just about all of the brain

Music has been shown to activate some of the broadest and most diverse networks of the brain. Of course, music activates the auditory cortex in the temporal lobes close to your ears, but that’s just the beginning. The parts of the brain involved in emotion are not only activated during emotional music, they are also synchronized. Music also activates a variety of memory regions. And, interestingly, music activates the motor system. In fact, it has been theorized that it is the activation of the brain’s motor system that allows us to pick out the beat of the music even before we start tapping our foot to it!

Use it or lose it

Okay, so music activates just about all of the brain. Why is that so important? Well, have you ever heard the expression, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it”? It turns out this is actually true in the brain. Brain pathways — and even whole networks — are strengthened when they are used and are weakened when they are not used. The reason is that the brain is efficient; it isn’t going to bother keeping a brain pathway strong when it hasn’t been used in many years. The brain will use the neurons in that pathway for something else. These types of changes should be intuitively obvious to you — that’s why it is harder to speak that foreign language if you haven’t used it in 20 years; many of the old pathways have degraded and the neurons are being used for other purposes.

Music keeps your brain networks strong

So just how does music promote well-being, enhance learning, stimulate cognitive function, improve quality of life, and even induce happiness? The answer is, because music can activate almost all brain regions and networks, it can help to keep a myriad of brain pathways and networks strong, including those networks that are involved in well-being, learning, cognitive function, quality of life, and happiness. In fact, there is only one other situation in which you can activate so many brain networks all at once, and that is when you participate in social activities.

Dance the night away

How do you incorporate music into your life? It’s easy to do. Although the AARP survey found that those who actively listened to music showed the strongest brain benefits, even those who primarily listened to background music showed benefits, so you can turn that music on right now. Music can lift your mood, so put on a happy tune if you are feeling blue. Uptempo music can give you energy. And if you combine music with an aerobic and social activity, you can receive the maximum health benefit from it. Participate in a Zumba class. Do jazz aerobics. Jump to the rhythms of rock & roll. Or, better yet, go dancing. (And yes, in a pandemic, you can still benefit by doing these activities virtually.)


Filed under aging brain, brain

3 responses to “Why is music good for the brain? – Harvard

  1. The most significant improvement in my quality of life following my TBI was with a music based therapy called Listening Therapy based on the Tomatis (Alfred Tomatis) method which is built on the Poly Vagal Theory (Dr. Stephen Porges). The Listening Therapy is designed to calm the Vagal nerve by addressing the muscle tone of the Strapedious muscle by exposing the person to music that has been modified to limit the frequency range. As the Therapy progresses the frequency range is adjusted. The intent is to strengthen the strapedius muscle so the brain receives signals at the correct pitch. If the pitch is too high or too low the brain receives the input as a danger signal (think the growl of a bear or the screech of a hawk) putting the autonomic system into fight or flight mode. Each time this happens the person goes through an adrenalin rush. When this happens too often in an hour or day (for me it was in reaction to most sounds) the person will experience ongoing fatigue due to the adrenal gland being drained. Even supplements couldn’t keep up with the draining. The brain was not recognizing pro-social sounds for what they were intended.
    My blog post at WordPress titled Tiniest Muscle with Real Pull explains in more detail how this therapy has helped my recovery.
    Music is powerful and can be harnessed in a variety of ways.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow. Interesting info, Jasper. Thanks for sharing. I got into music therapy in the 80’s when I was living in London and heard about it there. I found a music therapist and spent time with him. Very enlightening, especially so since I am a music lover from birth.


      • The broad field of brain study is still in its infancy. I marveled at how the theory for my therapy was explained to me. In the initial consultation I filled in my back story on how I reacted or dealt with my diverse array of challenges over a 5 year period. As therapist explained the theoretical part, I shared my body’s way of coping. We both came away from the consultation feeling we had learned a book’s worth of knowledge.
        I find it amazing how people like Porges and Tomatis were able to piece this together into a successful therapy. Had this major transformation happened within a year or so of my TBI rather than 5 years later I would have thought I had just imagined the TBI challenges I had been living with. Every once in awhile I remind myself that what I now once again take for granted is actually a truly amazing recovery

        Liked by 1 person

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