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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn Thomas

Music and the Brain

It’s no secret that music has a positive effect on the brain - this is probably evidenced in your own life and experiences of engaging in music. Maybe you hear a certain song and immediately feel happy or relaxed, or maybe particular genres of music make you feel focused or make you want to dance. It's pretty easy to see that music has the ability to influence our emotions and mood, as well as our actions. But why does music have this effect on us? What is it about music that gives it such power over our brains?

What happens in the brain when we are listening to or playing music?

When we are engaging in music, whether that be in a passive way by listening to music, or in more involved ways such as playing an instrument, our brains are working on overdrive to process what we're hearing and playing. This means that different areas all over the brain are involved in the process of understanding and playing music, which means many different neural pathways are firing at the same time, giving our brain the equivalent of a full-body workout. Other activities, such as exercise, language/speaking and cognition may only involve one area or small groups of areas in the brain in order to function, but music uses many areas in both hemispheres of the brain, as well areas at the front and back of the brain. This global employment of the brain during music engagement was only discovered relatively recently, with the advancement of technologies such as functional MRIs. This allowed researchers to examine the brain through an MRI machine while people were listening to music or playing a musical instrument. What was discovered was that simply listening to music caused many areas of the brain to light up with activity, but playing an instrument caused even more areas to light up and communicate with each other very quickly.

Why does this happen? Well, put simply, it's because music is a very complex thing for the brain to understand, and even more so to play. Music has many complex layers of intricacy for the brain to digest, including:

  • Rhythm

  • Timing

  • Pitch

  • Melody

  • Harmony

  • Timbre

  • Tone

  • Emotion

This must all be processed very quickly by the brain when we listen to music, but if we are to play an instrument the brain must also coordinate movement to play the instrument, engage visual areas to read music, engage language areas to read lyrics or instructions and understand social cues from other musicians, along with processing and responding to all the previously listed tasks.

What are the neural benefits of musical engagement?

Due to the involvement of the whole brain in musical engagement, the brain is able to connect and strengthen more neural pathways in each hemisphere of the brain, as well as between the hemispheres. This strengthening of neural pathways can lead to these positive outcomes:

  • Improved memory

  • Increased executive function

  • Increased connectivity between hemispheres

  • Better problem solving

  • Increased brain plasticity

Additionally, music engagement stimulates the reward centres in the brain by releasing the neurotransmitter, dopamine. When playing or listening to pleasurable music, the release of dopamine 'rewards' you for doing that activity by making you feel good. This dopamine release also reinforces the behaviour, and makes you want to repeat the behaviour to get the reward again. Due to this, music engagement can have other effects on the brain including:

  • Reduced stress and anxiety

  • More positive emotional state

  • Self-expression of emotions

  • Pain reduction

What are the long term effects of musical engagement?

Over the years, researchers have studied the brains of people who have learned musical instruments from an early age, and how this has affected them throughout their life and development. What they discovered was a significant difference in the brain structure of those who learned music and those who didn't. People who learned music showed greater volumes of grey matter in motor and auditory areas, as well as in the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres of the brain. These structural changes resulted in:

  • Better hearing

  • Improved memory

  • Stronger motor skills

  • Better language and speech

  • Stronger literacy

  • Better social skills and empathy for others

These skills can last throughout the lifetime, and have even been proposed to have a protective effect over the brain, potentially reducing the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases and promoting healthy aging.

How can we harness these effects through music therapy?

In a sense, everything we do in music therapy is targeting brain function - whether that be working on motor skills, language development, emotional regulation, mental health issues, rehabilitation , social skills and more - it's all related to how your brain is working. So, when we look at it that way, everything we do in music therapy is focussed on brain function and the effects of that within the body.

To be a little more specific, here are some examples of how training the brain through music engagement works in music therapy:

  • Neurorehabilitation - we use musical engagement to help restore and repair cognitive function following brain injuries such as a stroke

  • Mental health - we can use the emotional aspects of music to reduce stress hormones and increase reward hormones in the brain to assist in mental health recovery

  • Memory - music is often used with dementia patients as it has the power to resurface old memories and connect them back to their loved ones

  • Communication - music can help connect communication pathways in the brain for those who have lost the ability to speak or who are yet to develop it

While these examples are just a small snapshot of what we do in music therapy, they speak to how powerful music can be when used correctly in the recovery or treatment of many afflictions. But music engagement is not just beneficial for those experiencing illness or other health difficulties - music engagement can have a positive effect in anyone's life. Whether that's a mood boost after a hard day, to help motivate you in your exercise journey or to help you concentrate while you study, music is for everyone and can make a positive difference in your life today. So, I encourage you to explore and find out how you can use music to better your life today. I'd love to hear how you go in the comments below!

Thanks so much for reading, and as always please feel free to follow us on social media and sign up for our email list to stay up to date on all that's going on at Thrive. Please share this post with anyone you think may find it interesting, and feel free to get in touch to see how music therapy could benefit you today.

See you next month!


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1 commentaire

24 mai 2023

The effects of music on the brain are complex and multi-dimensional. Music has the power to evoke emotions, stimulate neural activity, release neurotransmitters, and create meaningful connections. Its ability to influence our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors makes it a powerful tool for self-expression, communication, and emotional well-being. Nowadays, a lot of attention is paid to music promotion, in particular on Audiomack

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