Did you know that music not only “soothes the savage beast,” it can also be a powerful tool in our health? Listening to music and playing an instrument improves not only our mental well-being, but is beneficial for the brain and enhances cerebral plasticity and cognitive abilities.
Few people can resist the power of music. While preferences vary, melodies and rhythms touch our heart as well as our brain — which is why listening to and playing music is increasingly recommended by the medical community. And it’s encouraged to start listening at a very young age. Studies have shown that music acts as a neurostimulant for babies, especially premature ones.
Swiss researchers at the University Hospitals of Geneva found in 2019 that music promotes the development of sensory and cognitive functions in these newborns. To reach this conclusion, the scientists commissioned composer Andreas Vollenweider to create three melodies: one to accompany the infants’ awakening, one to be played as they fall asleep and one “to interact during the awakening phases.” They found that the neural networks of babies exposed to these melodies developed more efficiently than those of other premature infants.
The impact of music on the cognitive and executive functions of our brain is well established, especially in children. Recent discoveries show that music can modify the biochemical processes of the brain by reinforcing cerebral plasticity. This would explain why it has beneficial effects on the intellectual development of toddlers.
Research by Christina Zhao and Patricia Kuhl, two scientists at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, already confirmed this in 2016. They found, with medical neuroimaging to back it up, that listening to music influences the development of speech learning skills in babies. “We know that babies learn rapidly from a wide range of experiences and we think music can be an important experience that may influence their brain development,” Christina Zhao told CBS News at the time.
The brain’s equivalent of a full-body workout
This beneficial effect on brain plasticity continues throughout childhood and adult life. And it appears that playing an instrument could help one’s intelligence quotient (IQ) develop more quickly. A team of researchers, led by experts from the Stanford University School of Medicine, studied the cognitive functions of 153 musicians and non-musicians. They found a significant difference in the brain structure of musicians who started playing an instrument at an early age, whether it was the piano, clarinet, trumpet or violin. They have stronger brain connections than those who started musical training later.
For Anita Collins, a researcher specialising in brain development and music learning, playing an instrument is the equivalent of “a full brain workout.” “While listening to music engages the brain in some pretty interesting activities, playing music is the brain’s equivalent of a full-body workout,” she explained in a 2014 TED Talk. “Playing a musical instrument engages practically every area of the brain at once, especially the visual, auditory, and motor cortices. As with any other workout, disciplined, structured practice in playing music strengthens those brain functions, allowing us to apply that strength to other activities.”
One thing is certain, the more you practise an instrument, the more you benefit from these effects. But listening to music can also bring many benefits. First of all, it can help regulate your mood. Cognitive neurosciences assert that music provides a feeling of pleasure by activating our reward circuit. This system, set up by natural selection to regulate our desires and emotions, increases the release of dopamine, the famous “happiness hormone.” So much so that music is now used as a therapeutic tool in health care institutions.
Musical memory’s long-lasting effects
Music therapy has also proven to be effective in treating stress and pain management. An increasing number of music workshops are being developed to help people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and even migraines. A team of French, German and American researchers conducted an experiment with 20 migraine patients. They suggested that the patients listen to 20 minutes of music twice a day for three months. The result: their migraine attacks were drastically reduced. Half of the participants in the study even declared that they had been reduced by half.
And the therapeutic benefits of music don’t stop there. Numerous studies indicate that music stimulates almost all forms of memory, even in the elderly. Hervé Platel, professor of neuropsychology at the University of Caen, was one of the first researchers in the 1990s to observe the persistence of musical memory. He discovered that patients with Alzheimer’s disease were able to learn new songs within a few weeks, whereas their memorisation abilities were thought to have been lost. And this, even at an advanced stage of the disease.
But does music help protect the brain from the effects of aging? Researchers remain cautious on this question. However, they are unanimous on one point: listening to music, singing or playing an instrument has multiple benefits on the overall cognitive functioning of the brain, and this at all ages. All the more reason to take advantage of Make Music Day tomorrow, June 21.
This story was published via AFP Relaxnews
(Main image: Jallen Fosati/ Unsplash; Featured image: Bryan Catota/ Pexels)