October 20, 2017
Music & the Brain

Is Music Really Good for the Brain?

by Jennifer Vose, senior editor

Undoubtedly, most of us have entertained the notion at one time or another that if we listen to music, like that of Mozart, we might do better in school, be more productive and creative at work, or even become smarter. If so, we can all admit to being mesmerized by the Mozart effect - the belief that listening to Mozart's music, in particular, can lead to enhanced intellectual and cognitive capabilities. In the mid-1990s, even the governor of Georgia was so moved by this theory that he allocated money in the state budget for nearly every newborn to be sent home from the hospital not only with essential baby supplies and nervous parents, but a CD of Mozart's music as well. And in a 2013 BBC story, it was reported that at least one farmer played Mozart's music for his livestock thrice daily, because he believed that doing so enabled the buffalos to produce higher-quality milk for his mozzarella.

The idea of the Mozart effect has been so deeply absorbed by our society that few question its validity. Many might be surprised to learn that Raucher, Shaw, and Ky's (1994) original study from which this widely-accepted phenomenon emerged was based on data gathered from only 34 college students; that listening to Mozart had positive effects only on spatial intelligence; and that these positive effects lasted only 15 minutes. While these study results were, no doubt, interesting and worth pursuing further, they're hardly a resounding exclamation point that listening to Mozart will make us smarter and have lasting effects on our brains. Yet, the theory has stuck, and people continue to count on Mozart to further elevate their intellectual capabilities.

Albert Einstein playing the violin

So, what's the truth of the matter then? Does music, either playing or listening to it, really affect our brains - our intelligence, our emotions, or the actual structures and inner workings of our nervous system?

Researchers do contend that music is processed in the brain differently than other sounds, like speech or everyday noises. In a 2012 study, Alluri and colleagues examined participants' brains using FMRI and found that different regions in the brain were activated by different acoustical features of music, such as timbre, tonality, and rhythm. Timbre appeared to be associated with activation of cognitive and sensory regions, and tonality and rhythm with cognitive, motor, and emotional regions. In a further 2013 study by Alluri et al., in which participants' brains were scanned using FMRI while listening to music from various genres, including music with and without lyrics, immediate emotional responses to music listening were associated with activation of different regions of the brain, such as the auditory, limbic, and motor cortices.

Researchers from MIT recently studied neuronal activity in the brain in response to listening to music, in order to better understand whether the processing of music is "piggy-backed" on other brain functions, or whether the perception of music happens along specific neural pathways. Using FMRI data from 10 participants who listened to recordings of 165 different sounds, including music, speech, and everyday noises, the researchers determined that music, regardless of genre, does have its own mechanisms for processing within the auditory cortex. Completely different neural pathways were used to process other types of sound, a notion that has advanced the understanding of the way the brain processes music. While not examined in this particular study, the researchers surmised that other regions in the brain are responsible for processing the emotional and expressive elements of music.

If music has its own mechanisms for processing within the brain, surely music must have positive effects on the brain. After all, much data exists suggesting a correlation between music and areas of life directly tied with brain function: performance in school, productivity at work, optimal physical and mental health, quality of life for people with such conditions as Alzheimer's disease - and this merely scratches the surface of this ever-growing field of research and advocacy.

Music education in public schools is a hot topic, and all too often, music programs are cut from thread-bear budgets, much to the dismay of those who believe strongly in the power of music to enrich the lives of students from kindergarten through high school. Solid evidence "proving" the potential positive effects of music on the brain, and presumably student achievement as well, is vital for parents, students, administrators, and teachers desperately trying to keep school-sponsored music programs afloat.

In a 2-part 2014 study, Zuk, Benjamin, and Kenyon found that adults and children with musical training did exhibit cognitive advantages over their non-musically-trained counterparts. Adults with prior musical training performed better on tests of cognitive flexibility, working memory, and verbal fluency; and the musically-trained children performed better in verbal fluency and processing speed. The musically-trained children also exhibited enhanced brain activation in the areas associated with "executive functioning" compared to children who had no previous musical training.

If music does affect the brain in ways that manifest in enhanced academic achievement, then professional organizations and large-scale research efforts provide statistics that lend support to this theory. The National Association for Music Education, as well as researchers from the University of Kansas, contend that participation in high-quality music programs in school is associated with higher GPA, SAT and ACT scores, IQ, and other standardized test scores, as well as fewer disciplinary problems, better attendance, and higher graduation rates.

Youth aren't the only members of society whose brains are like sponges soaking up all the benefits music has to offer. As the baby-boomer generation moves into and through their golden years, Alzheimer's disease, dementia, and general cognitive decline, unfortunately, touch the lives of all-too-many. Music provides a unique window into understanding these conditions, and also provides a unique avenue for treatment and enhanced quality of life for patients and caregivers alike - due, in large part, to the potential powerful effects of music on the aging brain.

In one study of individuals with Alzheimer's disease, Jacobson et al. used FMRI, other imaging techniques, and metabolic markers to suggest that areas of the brain most strongly associated with musical memory appeared to be less detrimentally affected by Alzheimer's disease than other areas of the brain typically ravaged by the disease - which is why music is such an important element when studying and treating individuals experiencing cognitive decline.

In a 2010 study, Simmons-Stern et al. found that individuals with Alzheimer's disease had better verbal recall of children's songs when the lyrics were sung to the participants rather than simply read aloud; and these same facilitative effects of sung lyrics were not observed in individuals without Alzheimer's disease. In a further 2013 study, individuals with moderate-to-severe dementia who participated in a 4-month group singing program scored better on cognitive tests than individuals who simply listened to the others singing. In support of such promising findings, the Alzheimer's disease Foundation of America (as cited in "The Independent") suggests, "When used appropriately, music can shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function, and coordinate motor movements." Similarly, the AARP advocates that music enhances mood and cognitive abilities, and may even lessen the need for psychotropic drugs to treat the symptoms of cognitive decline. As world-renowned neurologist, Oliver Sacks, explained with regard to Alzheimer's and dementia patients, "Music is no luxury to them, but a necessity, and it can have a power beyond anything else to restore them to themselves, and to others, at least for a while."

Despite the promising statistics, theories, personal anecdotes, and compelling arguments, some do still call into question whether music really does have such powerful effects on the brain - and such doubts are not entirely without support from within the research community. For example, even the National Association for Music Education acknowledges that some research does not support the notion that participation in music education provides any sort of advantages with regard to academic achievement. Additionally, While acknowledging the countless potential benefits of learning to play a musical instrument, some researchers contend that doing so may not actually boost intelligence in young minds as is often believed. In a study of 29 preschool children and their parents randomly assigned to either music or visual arts classes, researchers from Harvard examined the effects of the classes on cognition, vocabulary, math, and spatial ability of the preschoolers. Only on one of the spatial tasks did the children from the music class perform better than the children who participated in the visual arts class. Even in a larger replication study that included a control group of children who received neither music nor visual arts training, no significant differences among the groups emerged, suggesting that music may not be any more beneficial than visual arts training, or in some cases, no arts exposure at all. Samuel Mehr, one of the researchers, said, despite their findings, "There's a compelling case to be made for teaching music that has nothing to do with extrinsic benefits... Every single culture in the world has music, including music for children. Music says something about what it means to be human, and it would be crazy not to teach this to our children."

So, where do VSM Users fall into the mix? To learn more, we conducted a survey earlier this spring, to which over 700 of VSM's Users voluntarily responded. We asked Users to let us know whether making music and listening to music had positive, negative, or no effects on a variety of areas that we thought might be indicative of music's direct or indirect effects on the brain, including concentration, memory, attention, mood, creativity, alertness, self-esteem, sleep quality,, and overall physical health. While our survey was rather informal and non-scientific, and our analysis simplistic, the data we gathered was rich and plentiful. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Mood seemed most positively affected by music of all the areas we examined. Ninety-six percent of respondents indicated that both making music and listening to music had positive effects on their mood, such as lessening symptoms of depression.
  • Ninety-five percent of respondents indicated that listening to music enhanced relaxation; but interestingly, only 82% of respondents found that making music was relaxing. One musician commented, "Playing music actually revvs me up... Playing music does not relax me but activates the brain." Six percent of respondents indicated that making music negatively affected their ability to relax.
  • Listening to music had a negative effect on concentration for 7% of respondents, which was the most negatively affected area of those we included on the survey. At the same time, 97% of respondents reported that making music positively affected their concentration.
  • Roughly 40% of respondents indicated that listening to and making music had no effect on the quality of their sleep. While less than 1% of respondents reported negative effects of listening to and making music in many of the areas we examined, sleep quality appeared to be the most negatively affected of all the areas, with 6% reporting that listening to music had negative effects on sleep quality, and 8% that making music negatively affected the quality of sleep.
  • We asked about memory in a general sense, and while 91% of respondents indicated that making music positively affected their memory, only 75% reported that listening to music had positive effects on memory.
  • Seventy-two percent of respondents indicated that simply listening to music positively affected their self-esteem, and 89% indicated that making music positively affected self-esteem.
  • Seventy-four percent of respondents reported that listening to music positively affected their overall health.
  • Creativity was more positively affected by making music (92%) than listening to music (83%).
Effects of Listening to Music - Survey Chart

Effects of Making Music - Survey Chart

Many Users commented that listening to and making music have played an important role in enhancing mood and alleviating symptoms of depression, which reflects the findings from a 2011 study. Seventy-nine individuals diagnosed with depression were randomly assigned to a "standard care" only group (involving medication and traditional therapy), or a music therapy + standard care group. Music therapy involved one-on-one sessions with a music therapist in which the individual was given opportunities to improvise music using a mallet instrument, a percussion instrument, or an African djembe drum. Individuals who underwent music therapy along with standard care exhibited greater improvements in depression, anxiety, and general functioning than those who received standard care only. The differences between groups did, however, diminish after 3 months. One of the researchers commented, "Music therapy has specific qualities that allow people to express themselves and interact in a non-verbal way - even in situations when they cannot find the words to describe their inner experiences."

With a simple survey like the one we created and administered, it is not possible to study some of the finite ways that music may affect the brain, such as processing speed. In an experiment comparing individuals with and without previous musical training, study Participants with prior musical training exhibited faster processing speeds of synthesized speech sounds than those with no musical training. While the "millisecond" difference observed between the 2 groups may seem negligible, the researchers contended that the cumulative effects of this more efficient processing may prove beneficial in the aging brain.

Evidence for the effects of music on the brain is interesting and potentially impactful, but the research required to uncover these phenomena is often no easy feat. For one thing, it is rather difficult to study music's effects on the brain, and any resultant manifestations of these effects in everyday life, experimentally. After all, in order to "prove" cause-and-effect scientifically, study participants must be randomly assigned to experimental and control conditions - groups to be compared, and that are equal in all respects except for, say, one group listening to or playing music and the other not. Additionally, all other variables that could impact the study's results must be controlled - something very, very difficult to achieve when studying humans, and even more so when studying humans outside of a laboratory setting. Some research merely establishes correlations between listening to and making music with other variables of interest, which is a weaker, non-experimental research design, and is, thus, not the same as establishing cause-and-effect.

It must also be considered that music's effects on the brain could be somewhat indirect. For example, music may not be the direct cause of students achieving better grades in school; but if music improves students' self-esteem, and improved self-esteem gives students the confidence they need to work hard and strive in school, then music has had an indirect, although no less powerful, effect on a student's academic performance. Finally, even if research is conducted and promising results emerge, such findings need to be replicated in further studies for theories to form and hold ground.

Another element to consider is that countless variables could mediate the effects that music has on the brain and its functions. For example, listening to preferred music may be the catalyst for music's effects on the brain. Familiarity versus novelty of music must also be considered, as well as whether a musician is a novice or highly-experienced artist.

The bottom line is that research must continue, questions must still be pondered, and advocacy for music across the lifespan must be vigorous. Whether or not hard scientific proof exists, and even if we can only count on the placebo effects of music, the indirect effects of music, or anecdotal evidence of the power of music to affect intellect, cognition, mood, and other brain-related functions, music's positive effects cannot be understated. Chances are, if you listen to, play, or teach music that you enjoy and that touches your mind, body, heart, and spirit, your brain will be better for it.

What's your experience with music?
Does it help you with your mood and mind? Post your comments below!

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Ken Cory on October 20, 2017 @7:39 pm PST
The cause-and-effect relationship between music and brain health may never be proven scientifically. What's left is the hypothesis of a "virtuous cycle" in which making music and being smarter are mutually reinforcing. That is certainly my experience throughout my life.
Maria * VSM MEMBER * on October 20, 2017 @6:53 pm PST
A very interesting article! Have just two days ago returned from a cruise which was good except for the constant, indeterminable noise of "canned" music. This was played in all the public ares of the ship and was so distracting that I could not think clearly. Just as well I has my I-pod with me, so I gorged on Boccherini and Haydn to clear my head and think again! I was lucky enough to learn music at school, and we also had weekly broadcasts of music, as well as singing lessons. Now I play in a chamber group and sing all the way home after rehearsal. Does that prove your point? I'm not a professional musician but have used music to help me through some stressful times in my life. It works!
Fulvia * VSM MEMBER * on October 20, 2017 @6:02 pm PST
Very interesting article. I am sure good music (I would chose Beethoven over Mozart ) has a positive effect in every aspects of our lives. But I also think that genetics has a major influence for the desire to learn an instrument. I use myself as an example, having had a mother who was a pianist and a father who was a clarinet player and Army band conductor, it is not surprising that before I was 2 years old, I would spend hours sitting or standing by the piano while mother was practicing Chopin et al. I only wish every child in the world would have such an opportunity.
William Feast on October 20, 2017 @9:13 am PST
Fantastic article, I enjoyed reading it! Bring them on!


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