Music is a big part of our everyday lives – we hear it in movies, on the radio during our commute to work, we use streaming platforms and watch music videos, and more – but what effect does music have on the brain? What does listening to or playing music do to your mental health?
In this article, you’ll learn about several ways that music affects the brain, physically and mentally. We’ll also break down a few myths related to music and find out the reality behind common music-related beliefs that aren’t actually true.
Music and its physical effects on the brain and its functions
Music may lift our spirits when we’re feeling sad or may make us think of certain memories or times in our life, but studies have also shown that music has a big impact on the physical health of the brain and its functions.
Music can trigger so many things in the brain, from emotions to physical reactions, and more. In one study, UCLA evolutionary biologist Daniel Blumstein experimented with music’s ability to trigger fear in the brain by playing nonlinear sounds for participants.
Nonlinear sounds are produced when air is pushed past the vocal cords with great force; essentially a nonlinear sound is the same thing as a scream in that it is quite dissonant and unpleasant to listen to.
Blumstein played his study participants two different music scores: one that was emotionally neutral, and another that had irregular, nonlinear sounds in it.
Study results showed that the music score with nonlinear sounds evoked negative emotions in the listeners and caused a high level of emotional stimulation.
Music can also change the brain’s ability to correctly perceive time. In one study, different tempos of music (slower and faster) were played forwards and backwards for participants, and their instrumentation was changed between piano compositions and orchestral pieces.
Pieces that were played forwards were considered pleasant while pieces played backwards were unpleasant to the listener.
It was found that the effects of the tempo of the music combined with the brain’s emotional response to the pleasant or unpleasant sounding music directly correlated with the participants judging time longer for fast tempo songs and shorter for slow tempo songs.
The many different parts of the brain physically react differently to music. When we listen to music or play a musical instrument, many different parts of the brain light up and become active, performing their functions that allow you to appreciate, analyze, and act.
For example, the cerebellum stores physical memories and helps control coordinated movement. This means that even if an Alzheimer’s patient is losing their mental capabilities and memories from their adult life, if they learned to play a musical instrument as a child, they would still be able to remember how to play it despite their memory loss because the muscle movement is stored in the cerebellum.
Muscle memories don’t fade, and not only that, but the oldest memories are the last memories an Alzheimer’s patient loses.
Another example of music physically affecting the brain is in the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens is the reward seeking part of the brain that plays a big part in addiction. The nucleus accumbens is the part of the brain that releases dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for making us feel pleasure and satisfaction.
Music increases dopamine in the brain much like illegal drugs do. This is why for some people, music can be very addicting.
Yet another example is the temporal lobe. This part of the brain processes what we hear. The temporal lobe is a language center that spans both the left and right sides of the brain. In the left side of the brain, language and words are interpreted, and in the right side of the brain, the music and sounds are interpreted.
The temporal lobe allows us to analyze music, whether we are casually listening, or mixing a song in the studio.
Effects of music in Alzheimer’s patients
One area where music especially has an impact on the brain is in patients with senile dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease, which means that neurons in the brain start to deteriorate over time.
Neurons are messengers that send information to and from different parts of the brain, the body, and the nervous system using electrical impulses and chemical signals.
In Alzheimer’s patients, when neurons deteriorate, information can no longer pass through the nervous system, resulting in symptoms like memory loss, confusion, aggression, an inability to create new memories, depression, and jumbled speech, among many others.
In some of the most severe cases, those with Alzheimer’s are often wheelchair bound due to being unable to control their muscle movements. Many patients who do have the ability to walk may get lost or wander frequently, even in places that were once familiar to them.
The cause of Alzheimer’s is still unknown, but it is speculated that an abnormal buildup of proteins in the brain affecting the neurons’ ability to function normally could be what causes the disease.
Risk factors include advancing age, smoking, head trauma, lack of mental stimulation, family history, and Down’s syndrome, to name a few. Unfortunately there is no treatment or cure for Alzheimer’s, and on average, people with the disease live just three to 11 years after being diagnosed, but some can survive much longer, even close to 20 years.
Life expectancy depends heavily on the rate of neurodegeneration and the degree of impairment at the time of receiving the diagnosis.
Sadly, many people with Alzheimer’s pass away due to complications from the severe loss of brain function caused by this disease such as infection or dehydration, but Alzheimer’s is not always an automatic death sentence for those diagnosed.
Many studies have been done regarding music and Alzheimer’s disease. For Alzheimer’s patients, music can be used as a mnemonic device to aid in the carrying out of complex tasks such as getting dressed, brushing teeth, and other tasks that have multiple steps.
In one instance, detailed in Musicophilia by neurologist Oliver Sacks, one of his patients with Alzheimer’s, known as “Dr. P,” struggled with severe confusion and had lost the ability to recognize objects and identify them correctly, or at all.
His wife shared with Sacks that Dr. P, however, could go about his daily routine and complete tasks throughout the day if he made it into a song.
He would make up little songs about each dressing, bathing, eating, etc, as he performed each task, but if he was ever interrupted and lost his place in his song, his cognitive function would fail again and he would again be unable to recognize items that he had just been able to identify seconds before.
Music and its effects on mental health
Music also plays a large impact on mental health. You may have heard of music therapy before, which is an evidence based therapy that uses musical interventions to help improve clients’ mental health and overall quality of life.
Music therapists can use either active or receptive approaches to provide their clients with assistance in articulating their feelings or increase emotional awareness.
Active approaches are things like the main intervention activities like lyrical analysis and songwriting (see below) where clients make music.
Receptive approaches are where the clients listen to music. Therapists use pre recorded music to aid in reflection, relaxation, introspection, changing the client’s mood, and more.
There are four main interventions that therapists use in music therapy: lyrical analysis, improvisational playing of musical instruments, active music listening, and songwriting.
Each of these activities can be used as tools to help clients who struggle with depression, PTSD, and schizophrenia, and can aid in processing emotions and grief, or even help to calm one’s anxiety.
With lyrical analysis, clients can use lyrics in existing songs to help them open up and talk about their struggles and situations that they identify with due to their own experiences.
This is especially useful when talk therapy proves to be too daunting for a client; using lyrical analysis makes it a bit easier to discuss difficult topics that one might otherwise struggle with.
The playing of musical instruments in music therapy lights up the communication center of the brain that improves language and communication. Playing musical instruments can also encourage expression of emotions and socialization.
In music therapy, musical instruments can be played to adequately help the client communicate how they feel.
With active listening to music, the neocortex of the brain is engaged due to the repetitive and rhythmical repetitions. The neocortex helps to calm us and reduce impulsivity.
A music therapist may use calming music or music that matches the current mood during a therapy session to help a person reach a calmer state if they are feeling agitated or upset.
Finally, songwriting can aid in allowing for the expression of thoughts and emotions in a positive way. The process of making a song, whether it’s just lyrics or instrumentation too, can be very validating and instill a greater sense of self worth in a person. Doing so in music therapy can boost confidence and even feelings of pride.
While music therapy is a creative, innovative way to aid in expression of thoughts and feelings among those who struggle with mental illness, many studies have been done over the years to support the foundations that music therapy is based on, and even more has been discovered about the impacts of music on mental health.
Music and depression
As far as depression goes, music can be used to treat depression as well. A study was done comparing nine different studies with 421 participants who were diagnosed with a depressive disorder.
Music therapy was implemented as a treatment program alongside the participants’ normal treatment programs (medications, talk therapy, etc.) in some studies, some with active intervention techniques and others with receptive techniques.
In some studies, music therapy sessions were held in a group setting while two studies used individual sessions. In other studies, music therapy was the only treatment for the participants with depression and no psychological therapy was used.
As far as results go, it was discovered that music therapy did improve the mood in the majority of the study’s participants, however, it was reported that there wasn’t a very large difference between how the participants felt after going through music therapy compared to how they felt after going through psychological therapy.
In general, the conclusion was that music therapy can indeed help with depression, but right now there is not enough information for scientists and therapists to be confident about its effectiveness compared to other therapies and types of treatment. More high quality studies need to be done on music therapy and depression before this can happen.
Music and anxiety
Considering that music can change our moods, it is no surprise that it also has a great impact on anxiety and stress. In a 2018 study, 25 patients with mild Alzheimer’s disease helped scientists and doctors discover just how effective music can be on anxiety and stress levels.
These 25 Alzheimer’s patients went through a 60 minute long music therapy session. Before and after this music therapy session, saliva samples were collected from the patients to test the level of cortisol in their saliva.
Cortisol is a hormone released from the adrenal glands in response to fear or stress. Cortisol activates your fight or flight response and increases your breathing rate as well as your heart rate. It also curbs your bodily functions that are nonessential or would be detrimental during an acutely stressful event. It is also produced as a response to waking up or exercising.
After the 25 patients each finished their music therapy session, their mouths were swabbed again and their cortisol levels were tested.
The results showed that the music therapy session helped reduce cortisol in the patients’ saliva, which then means that the therapy helped with their anxiety and stress.
Another situation where the person is likely to be extremely anxious and stressed is in the case of being treated for cancer. Scientists and doctors were hopeful that with music therapy’s positive impact on the brain, cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy for head, neck, or breast cancer would be positively affected by music.
In this study, 78 patients enrolled, with 38 patients having breast cancer and 40 patients having head or neck cancer.
The 78 patients were split into two groups of 39, and all of them took an anxiety questionnaire and another on symptom distress. One of these groups would receive a music therapy consultation while the other group would not.
Patients in the group that received music therapy went through a consultation with a music therapist, and during this consultation, music of the patient’s choice was played in the background.
The other group of 39 patients did not receive a consultation with a music therapist, and they did not hear any pre recorded music of their choosing during the study. After the study, all of the patients took the same anxiety questionnaire and symptom distress questionnaire once more.
Results showed that for the group that received music therapy, their anxiety was significantly decreased during the study.
This absolutely warrants that more studies be carried out to fully understand and explore the extent to which music affects anxiety.
Common music myths debunked
There are many myths surrounding music and its effects on the brain. We’re going to take a look at some of these myths and find out the truth about them.
Myth: People who enjoy/listen to aggressive music genres like rock and metal have worse mental health than those who do not.
Fact: Aggressive music does not have any more of a negative impact on the brain for those that listen to it than daily life has on someone who doesn’t listen to aggressive music.
Two studies can back this up. Firstly, a study done in France. In this study, 333 fans of metal music had their mental health evaluated through an anxiety and depression scale. The scores of the metal music fans were then compared to scores that may indicate varying severity of mental illness.
Overall, the levels of anxiety and depression in the metal music fans were about the same or even lower than levels in the general population.
Less than 5% of the study’s participants showed pathological symptoms of anxiety and depression. Participants in the study that did have higher levels of anxiety and depression tended to have a background in literature or arts rather than sciences. These participants also were found to write their own metal music lyrics.
Another study was started after two teenage girls committed suicide. The media claimed that the girls’ enjoyment of “emo” music (another style of music with aggressive instrumentation and vocals with emotional, often melancholic lyrics) was linked to their poor mental health.
In this study, multiple other studies were researched and compared to find the answer of whether or not one’s preference in music genres contributes to their mental health.
While some studies have shown that there may be a relationship between different music genres and things like drug use, antisocial behavior, and suicide, they reject the idea that music specifically causes these things and instead suggest that one’s preference in music genres more so correlates with their emotional vulnerability.
More research is needed before scientists can come to the conclusion that music genre preference directly affects one’s mental health.
Myth: Listening to classical music or Mozart doesn’t make you smarter.
Fact: Listening to music doesn’t make you smarter, instead it activates parts of the brain that then aid you in the tasks at hand.
In 1993, one study claimed that after listening to Mozart’s sonata for two pianos for 10 minutes, 36 young adult test subjects showed largely improved spatial reasoning skills than after listening to silence or relaxation instructions for 10 minutes.
This became known as the “Mozart effect” and people around the world interpreted it as meaning that listening to classical music or Mozart would literally make one smarter.
This study has been debunked due to the effects of the music only lasting for 10 minutes after listening to it, and it doesn’t make us more intelligent.
Myth: People who play a musical instrument are good at mathematics.
Fact: While music does involve a fair amount of math, not all musicians are good at it.
Pythagoras, an Ancient Greek philosopher, thought that music was a mathematical science similar to astronomy or geometry, and during those times, music was taught just like science or math was.
Throughout history, many musicians and composers have used mathematical concepts to create their music, Johann Sebastien Bach, to name one, applying number theory to many of his works. However, there is no indication that those who are musicians are automatically good at math.
While musicians may have a bit more of an understanding of mathematical concepts due to using a bit of math to some extent in their musical compositions, being predisposed to music doesn’t guarantee that they will actually be good at solving mathematical problems.
There are so many ways that music can be used to improve physical and mental health, and the countless number of studies that have been conducted over the past several years show plenty of evidence that music does improve one’s health and can impact the brain in various ways.
Misinformation regarding music, the brain, and mental health is still plentiful, so debunking common myths is important to prevent more of a stigma from growing against those who use music to cope with their daily lives.
However, with proper education and awareness, it is easy to see that music therapy and other music related treatments for physical and mental illnesses are becoming more popular as time goes on and really do affect the brain in some groundbreaking ways.
Be sure to check back in the near future for more information on music and its impact throughout the world.