9 Studies on Music and the Brain

Dig into 9 studies on music and the brain to see the amazing effects of listening to and playing music on emotion, development, and more.

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I love learning about music and the brain. Since picking up the guitar at age 13 (and the clarinet for a brief time before that), I can say it’s had a hugely positive impact in my life. For this article, I wanted to take a look at some music and the brain studies and share some key takeaways I found.

Whether you listen to music while you work, play drums in a band, or compose post-tonal music, having some type of musical experience in your life is definitely positive.

Music and Brain Health Survey (1)

AARP conducted a survey on brain health and music. Here are some key takeaways: 

  • One-third of adults ages 18 and older spend half the time or more listening to background music.
  • Two-thirds of adults pay close attention to recorded music.
  • 81% of adults like music from before their generation, 49% like music from after their generation, and just 9% only like music from their generation.
  • Country music is a favorite across age groups.
  • Millennials most often tune in to music on their smartphones (83%), while Boomers prefer their car radio (82%).
  • Nearly 8 in 10 adults have gone to a musical or dance performance.
  • 68% of those who were exposed to music as a child often rated their ability to learn new things as excellent or very good.
  • About half of all adults (48%) have played a musical instrument.
  • Three-quarters of respondents say they have engaged in singing.
  • Dancing is popular among two-thirds of adults.
  • Adults with no early exposure to music but who currently engage in some music appreciation show above average mental well-being scores.

Neuroscience Music and the Brain Podcast with Larry Sherman (2)

Neuroscience professor Larry Sherman published a podcast on the brain and music. Here are a few takeaways:

  • 2 miles an hour is the speed of a nerve impulse when myelin is lost
  • 200 miles an hour is the speed of a nerve impulse when myelin is present
  • 3 things that happen when we learn new music: synapse changes, new neurons are created, myelin is generated
  • 3 benefits of playing music in a group: reduced pain, increased endorphin and dopamine release, feelings of acceptance and tolerance
  • Music stimulates new connections in our brains, keeping our cognitive abilities sharp and memories alive.
  • Listening to sad music can be a positive, cathartic experience as we experience empathy and get a dopamine release.
  • Our brains have specific cells in the auditory cortex that light up in response to music, allowing us to categorize it.
  • Learning and playing music drives myelination, neurogenesis (new neuron creation), and synapse formation in the brain.
  • Playing an instrument is one of the most cognitively challenging things our brains can do.
  • Music therapy has been shown to help stroke victims regain speech through singing.
  • People with dementia can often still remember and perform music due to its distributed neural circuits.
  • Listening to music while studying can enhance attention if it doesn’t have lyrics and isn’t too familiar.
  • Playing music in groups causes greater endorphin and dopamine release, reducing pain and increasing feelings of group acceptance.
  • Starting musical training early has cognitive benefits but it’s never too late to pick up an instrument.

Neurobiological Effects of Music on the Brain (3)

Researchers published a white paper for the Berklee Music and Health Institute on neurobiological effects of music on the brain. Below are a few takeaways.

Brain and Music Perception

  • Our brains decode sound using tonotopic mapping, allowing us to perceive pitch and tone.
  • Multiple brain areas activate during music listening, including auditory, motor, emotional, memory, and reward regions.
  • Activation patterns change depending on music type, whether we listen, play, or improvise.

Music’s Impact on Brain

  • Music training can increase brain structure and connectivity in music processing areas.
  • Even short-term music exposure can alter brain activation patterns.
  • Music therapy may help heal or improve brain function in various conditions.
  • Music affects not just brain but also physiological responses like heart rate and inflammation.
  • Music therapy shows promise for treating various behavioral and physical conditions.

Future of Music and Medicine

  • Advanced technologies like AI and personalized medicine might lead to targeted music therapy.
  • Music has potential for both individual and population-wide health improvement.
  • Brain damage can affect music perception differently depending on the location.
  • Music’s effect on the brain is bidirectional, influencing both mental and physical states.

Music and the Brain Study on Attention (4)

Stanford researchers looked at how attention works during musical pieces using short classical works. Here’s what they found:

  • Researchers used fMRI to study how the brain segments events when listening to music, specifically when transitioning between movements in classical symphonies.
  • The brain shows synchronized activity across individuals during movement transitions in music. In contrast, listeners’ attention varied during the movements themselves.
  • Peak brain activity occurs during silence between movements, not during music itself.
  • Two distinct neural networks were identified that process movement transitions – the ventral fronto-temporal network and the dorsal fronto-parietal network.
  • The right side of the brain was significantly more active than the left during movement transitions.
  • Listening to music may help sharpen the brain’s ability to anticipate events and sustain attention, which could help solve the “cocktail party problem” (focusing on one conversation in a noisy environment).

Music and the Brain Study on Familiarity (5)

Researchers looked at how familiarity affects the music listening experience. Here’s what they found.

Familiar Music

  • Left superior frontal gyrus (BA 6) most active, suggesting retrieval of prior memories.
  • Ventral lateral nucleus of the left thalamus activated, possibly for preparation to move to the music.
  • Left medial surface of superior frontal gyrus/supplementary motor area (SMA) activated, possibly due to mental singing or anticipation.
  • Familiarity may increase attention and activate motor areas due to expectation and repetition.
  • Frontal brain areas seem crucial for processing familiar music.
  • Evidence for limbic engagement not found, possibly due to study limitations or stimuli used.

Unfamiliar Music

  • Left insula activated, involved in cognitive, emotional, and self-awareness processes.
  • Right anterior cingulate cortex (BA 32) activated, related to emotional salience and motivation.
  • Activation may be due to novelty detection or recognition attempts.
  • Brain regions activated could reflect both recognizing songs and detecting unfamiliarity.

Overall

  • This meta-analysis differentiates brain activity during listening to familiar vs. unfamiliar music.
  • Frontal brain areas and motor areas play key roles in both conditions.
  • Familiarity may influence anticipation, memory retrieval, and motor preparation.
  • More research needed to understand the full picture of music’s influence on brain activity.

Music and the Brain Study on Neuroplasticity (6)

Researchers looked at how music training shapes the adult brain. Here’s what they found.

  • Musical training is considered a useful framework for studying training-induced neuroplasticity as it requires multimodal integration of sensory, motor, and cognitive functions.
  • Cross-sectional studies have identified structural and functional differences between musicians and non-musicians, especially in areas related to motor control and auditory processing like the premotor cortex, superior temporal gyrus, etc.
  • A few longitudinal studies have shown functional changes related to musical training in the motor network and its connectivity with the auditory system, corroborating cross-sectional findings.
  • Potential predictors of musical learning success were found, including increased pre-training activation in auditory and motor areas during listening, the microstructure of the arcuate fasciculus, and functional connectivity between auditory and motor systems.
  • The “musical brain” seems to be a product of both natural human neurodiversity (predispositions) as well as effects of musical training. Cross-sectional differences overlapping with longitudinal changes suggest training-related neuroplasticity in brain areas like the auditory-premotor-parietal network.
  • More longitudinal studies are needed to understand the timecourse and dynamics of plasticity changes during musical training and delineate predispositions from effects of training. Key methodological factors need to be considered in the design of such studies.

How Music Affects Emotions, Stress, and More (7)

Researchers studied how music lights up different areas of the brain and affects things like stress and emotions. Here’s what they found.

  • Music affects areas of the brain related to emotions, learning, coordination, and memory, including the hippocampus, cingulate cortex, and amygdala.
  • Music therapy can help relieve stress, reduce anxiety, improve mood, and help with rehabilitation in conditions like stroke, dementia, and cerebral palsy.
  • Musicians tend to have larger anterior corpus callosums and greater motor cortex representation of their fingers compared to non-musicians.
  • Starting musical training at a young age leads to more pronounced structural brain changes compared to training later in life.
  • Different genres of music create activity “hubs” in different regions of the auditory cortex.
  • Familiar, liked music activates brain regions involved in emotion and reward processing more than unfamiliar or disliked music.
  • Musicians show enhanced multitasking, motor skills, and ability to differentiate between conflicting auditory and visual stimuli compared to non-musicians.
  • Listening to music can improve mood and work performance, as well as activate brain regions involved in converting short-term to long-term memory.
  • Musical training can improve reading comprehension, word decoding, and math skills in children.
  • Mechanisms by which music induces emotions include brain stem reflexes, conditioned response learning, emotional contagion, imagery, memory recall, and expectation violation.

Neuroscience of Musical Appreciation (8)

Researchers looked at musical perception, music therapy, and the link between creativity and pathology. Here’s what they found.

  • Music is deeply embedded in our understanding of the world and patients as persons. It has a long history in psychiatry, such as with asylum concerts and bands.
  • The auditory system is attuned to the human voice range and composers use a similar frequency range. Infants have a sensitive period for incorporating music.
  • Music arouses feelings and physiological responses that can now be measured. However, the emotion may relate more to the listener’s subjective experience.
  • Mood disorders are overrepresented among famous composers, with 35-40% affected, but none had schizophrenia. This suggests avenues for therapeutic investigation.
  • Music provides a non-invasive way to stimulate the brain. It can facilitate motor recovery in conditions like stroke, Parkinson’s, and cerebral palsy.
  • Music therapy may improve mood disorders like depression. It may also help epilepsy by normalizing EEGs and decreasing seizures.
  • Most music therapy research has used Western classical music, but Indian ragas also show promise. They are associated with specific emotions and affect EEG patterns.
  • Listening to certain ragas can reduce blood pressure, stress, anxiety and depression over time. Gender differences exist in physiological responses.
  • Systematic research into traditional music therapy for neuropsychiatric disorders is lacking but holds promise based on initial findings.

How Music Therapy Can Reduce Stress and Inflammation (9)

Researchers looked at how music therapy can reduce stress and inflammation. They took a close look at patients of COVID-19 and how they responded to music.

  • Music engages individuals cognitively, emotionally, and physically. There is evidence it impacts neurotransmitters, neuropeptides, and biological systems.
  • COVID-19 triggers an inflammatory cytokine response that can lead to a “cytokine storm”.
  • Music interventions have reduced pro-inflammatory cytokines like IL-6, IFNγ, and TNF. These are also elevated in COVID-19.
  • Music increased anti-inflammatory biomarkers like IL-10 and IgA. Managing inflammation is key in COVID-19.
  • Stress impacts immune function and inflammation. As a stressor itself, COVID-19 may perpetuate inflammatory effects. Music reduces physiological stress responses.
  • Neurological manifestations are common in COVID-19 patients. The virus can enter the CNS and trigger neuroinflammation. This may exacerbate neurodegeneration.
  • Though no direct evidence yet, music’s impact on relevant biomarkers suggests potential to reduce COVID-19 hyperinflammation and severity.
  • Variability in music interventions and COVID-19 variants complicates comparison. Standardization is needed.
  • More research into music therapy for inflammation and infection is warranted, especially for COVID-19 and cerebrovascular impacts.

Sources:

  1. https://www.aarp.org/pri/topics/health/brain-health/brain-health-and-music/
  2. https://news.uchicago.edu/how-your-brain-benefits-music
  3. https://remix.berklee.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1005&context=mh-exchange-music-medicine
  4. https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2007/07/music-moves-brain-to-pay-attention-stanford-study-finds.html
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6183416/
  6. https://www.frontiersin.org/journals/neuroscience/articles/10.3389/fnins.2021.630829/full
  7. https://las.touro.edu/media/schools-and-colleges/lander-college-for-arts-and-sciences/biology/publications/fall-2018/music_and_the_brain_nierman.pdf
  8. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/320812687_Music_and_the_brain_the_neuroscience_of_music_and_musical_appreciation
  9. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/epub/10.1177/20592043221135808