“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”
~ Victor Hugo, “William Shakespeare”
It's no secret that music is a powerful, intangible force that affects us as human beings. While we all have our own tastes in terms of preferred styles, genres, performers, and sounds, there are also consistencies in music that can benefit all of us.
Music and the Brain
A 2007 study at the Stanford University School of Medicine determined that music engages the areas of the brain that correlate with updating memory, making predictions, and paying attention. The study was done with classical music, and it was discovered that peak brain activity occurred between movements of larger bodies of music. As one movement would slow down and come to a close, the brain would “perk up,” anticipate the ending, and wait for the next movement to begin. This phenomenon is known as event segmentation and can be examined to explain how our brains sort out the chaotic world around us. Our brains naturally look for patterns to follow, and music triggers that instinct in a fundamental way. This in turn exercises the brain, better preparing it to anticipate patterns in life and make sense of what could otherwise be a very busy, noisy world.
Music and Memory
The parts of the brain that handle short- and long-term memory are also affected by music. A 2014 study at The University of Jyväskylä and the AMI Center of Aalto University revealed a significant increase in activity in the medial temporal lobe areas of the brain–best known for creating long-term memories–when musical motifs in a composition were repeated. This correlates with the Stanford study from 2007; the anticipation of a musical element–triggering one part of the brain–is rewarded when the expectation is met, which affects a different part of the brain and turns it into a memory.
Music and Emotion
Another discovery of the 2014 study from Finland showed that the connection between music and memory can affect the hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for emotional behavior. The study pointed out that emotional events are generally more memorable than what would otherwise be called neutral, or non-emotional, events. Not only can music trigger emotions that the brain chooses to store, but our brains often connect and associate music to events in our lives. We remember where we were when we first heard a song, what was playing during a significant life change, what was first listened to with a spouse, and so on. This connection has implications that music could be used to positively strengthen the brain and prevent hippocampal atrophy that’s been shown to lead to Alzheimer’s or other diseases.
Music and Children
It’s often generalized that listening to classical music can make babies smarter. This isn’t exactly true, but it has been discovered that music can affect the way children think. Research has shown that the act of listening to complex music triggers parts of the brain that want to understand the complexity that it’s hearing. This work by the brain activates the pathways used for spatial reasoning, such as problem solving and putting together puzzles. This connection is even stronger for children who learn how to play an instrument. Instead of just understanding musical structure by listening to it, the child gains a deeper understanding by actually creating the musical structures themselves, activating the brain more deeply and for a longer period of time.
“If music be the food of love, play on.”
~ William Shakespeare, “Twelfth Night”
The Loss of Exercise
Just by listening to music, your brain is exercised and gets stronger. But what happens if this input slows down, or even stops? As is true for any form of exercise, the lack thereof could cause the muscle in question to get “out of shape,” or at the least, become weaker. While some body parts need more attention than others, most would agree that the brain ranks high up in terms of importance.
What would cause the loss of this healthy brain exercise? While actively choosing to listen to less music could be a factor, a more serious threat is untreated hearing loss. Without the full potential of one’s hearing, the ability to respond to music is diminished, and the brain may not be able to fully interpret and respond to what is coming in. This in turn can cause a vicious cycle potentially leading to brain weakening. Whatever the source of the hearing loss, it’s clear that the damage goes deeper than just the ears.
If untreated hearing loss leads to music loss, which can lead to a weaker brain, then a logical solution for all of the above would be to address the state of one’s hearing. Today’s technology can bring back the sounds that may be missing, which can restore the music that may be missing. Many of the hearing aids currently on the market can connect to your smartphone, which allows music to be streamed directly to the device. This can save a step in the recovery of music by allowing the ears to listen in with less effort. There really is no reason not to enjoy music!
Music is more than a source of entertainment, a hobby, or background noise. It’s proven to be beneficial for your brain, which needs exercise and stimulation in order to stay healthy, active, and sharp, and with today’s advances in technology, countless hours of music are simply a click away. If hearing loss is a factor, then today’s technology can address that, and even bring music directly to your hearing aids. In so doing, you’re helping your memory, enhancing your problem solving skills, and more. Whether you’re listening, performing, or both, you can use music to keep your brain strong.
The next time you fire up your MP3 player, YouTube playlist, go to a concert, or sit down to play an instrument, take a moment to consider how much that music is positively impacting your health.
Last updated: October 9, 2014
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