Music can be a magical thing. The right melody can get us out of our chairs and onto the dance floor, or can help us relax and recharge. Hearing a particular song can whisk us back into the past, enable us to tap into deeply held emotions, or help us find the space to dream. And while researchers have long grappled with how exactly music works with the human mind, one thing does appear to be true: music engages our brains in complicated and mysterious ways.
How the Brain Processes Music
In his book This Is Your Brain On Music, professor Daniel J. Levitin writes that “musical activity involves nearly every region of the brain that we know about, and nearly every neural subsystem.” That means that whether you’re picking out a melody on your guitar, or listening to a symphony orchestra, virtually your entire brain is keenly engaged in the process. In fact, part of what makes understanding music’s effect on the brain so complicated is that there is no single musical center. Like with understanding language, music is processed in different ways: one part of our brain decodes pitch and tempo, for example, while other parts tap into memory and emotion. If you play an instrument, your brain also has to figure out what to do with your hands, while yet another part is used to read notes off the page.
“I think that there is sufficient evidence to say that yes, music does have beneficial powers for the brain,” says Lola Cuddy, PhD, professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at Queen’s University. “But we have to be very careful.” She says that’s because there have been a lot of sensational claims around music that have now been discredited because they couldn’t be proved scientifically (think, for example, of “The Mozart Effect,” which once suggested listening to Mozart’s music could make you smarter).
As Dr. Cuddy explains, there is some evidence that suggests that children who take music lessons will do better on certain kinds of tests, especially around reading and concentration. “Yes, perhaps it’s the music lessons that are sharpening those skills,” she says. “Of course, if you want your child to be better at reading or math, you would probably do better to get her help in those areas, but there is some evidence that adding music is beneficial.” Dr. Cuddy also says there has been research that indicates that people who have music training do better when their auditory skills are tested. “For example, it seems they are better at decoding speech against a noisy background,” she says.
Music, Dementia, and Rehabilitation
Interestingly, music can also play an important role in brain and movement rehabilitation. Some studies indicate that because music and motor control share common circuits in the brain, music can help improve movement in patients who have Parkinson’s disease, or who have lost mobility due to a stroke, as well as in patients who struggle with cognition or language afterward.
Dr. Cuddy’s own research, which is supported by the Grammy Foundation and the Alzheimer Society of Canada, focuses on patients who suffer from dementia. “We’ve found that many of our Alzheimer’s patients seem to retain the ability to recognize music,” she says, describing a patient who could sing along to familiar tunes, even though she couldn’t recognize family members, or look after herself. “That was encouraging,” she adds, “because it shows that not only can we use music to enrich quality of life for patients, we can also use it to help caregivers communicate with their patients. They can sing together, or use music to access memories.”
Dr. Cuddy also says that if they can isolate why certain areas of the brain are spared when dementia sets in, it will help guide future research. “We’ll have a better understanding of why certain parts of the brain are spared or preserved when other memories aren’t,” she says.
Why Listening to Music Is Good for You
Ultimately, what we do know about the brain is just the tip of a vast, infinitely complicated iceberg. “There are so many components to music,” explains Dr. Cuddy, “and the networks are distributed through the brain.” In other words, listening to music engages a huge, complicated network—an asset when it comes to keeping the brain fit and healthy for a lifetime.
Whether or not there is hard proof that it’s making your smarter, it’s clear that listening to music can lift your mood and help you relax, which will bring down blood pressure and relieve muscle tension. “Music has a very therapeutic effect,” says Dr. Cuddy. After all, at the end of the day, music is about pleasure—and it’s something that can be enjoyed over a lifetime. “If you listen to music, whether it’s when you’re young or later in your life, it’s likely never to leave you,” says Dr. Cuddy. “People may worry about losing their memories, but we can almost say for sure that music is very likely to stay with you.”