Whether you play a musical instrument, are a festival goer or just love listening to your favourite tunes on the radio, many of us instinctively know the effects of music on our mood and energy.
But did you know about the huge benefits that playing and listening to music can have for your brain?
Your brain loves music. While sound drifts through your auditory pathways, pitch registers in the language center, rhythm rockets through the motor regions, and the rest of your brain chips in to puzzle out tune, predict melody, connect it to memory and decide whether or not you want to download it.
Your brain lights up like a Christmas tree when you listen to music, Music is really such a complex stimulus and you can use it in an intentional way for general brain health and wellness.
Learning a musical instrument boosts brain health
Learning to play a musical instrument boosts memory. Whether you're strumming a guitar or working a woodwind, playing an instrument will sharpen your memory recall and protect your mind from the ravages of old age. The process involves a complex list of tasks (like finger placement and reading musical notes) that expands your working memory capacity.
Over time, your brain will learn to perform more tasks simultaneously without getting overloaded, and you’ll remember information longer. Also, playing in a group (like in an orchestra) strengthens your ability to extract smaller pieces of information from a complex landscape, which fine-tunes your long-term learning skills.
Learning a musical instrument is like an Olympic Games for the brain. It teaches the brain to problem-solve, which is why people who’ve had musical training are usually better at maths, science and engineering later in life. Timing is everything, though: The results are better for those who start young. Children’s brains are more receptive to learning. Their brains are still actively developing and being moulded. The more intense the musical training, the more a child’s' brain will develop. In musical training, you’re requiring a bunch of core cognitive systems to take part. There have been studies that show these children’s verbal working memory scores increase.
Did you miss out on violin lessons as a child? Don’t worry. Adults can still benefit from musical training because the brain stays "plastic" throughout our lives. In fact, a number of studies have shown that musicians have better memory and are at a much lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. More than that, complex activities, like learning a musical instrument dramatically increase cognitive reserve and build connections in your brain that fortify it against cognitive decline and dementia. So it’s never too late to reap the benefits of musical training.
Group singing makes you happier
The act of singing sends vibrations through the body that simultaneously lower the level of cortisol (the stress hormone) and release endorphins, making us feel content. The anticipation of a singing group’s melodic changes floods the body with dopamine, resulting in a sense of euphoria.
Research shows that choir singing also releases the antibodies which boosts our immune system -- especially when the song is moving. Can’t find a group to sing with, or perhaps just too shy? Go solo! Singing releases oxytocin (the happiness hormone), so even singing alone can be an instant mood booster.
Music soothes emotional and physical pain.
Love listening to your favourite tunes on your way to work? It’s more than just a fun distraction - a team of Swedish researchers found that frequently listening to music you like reduces your cortisol levels. In a case of music over matter, it can also be a great pain killer by simultaneously distracting you and boosting your positive emotions.
Music triggers the release of dopamine, a hormone released during pleasurable activities, like eating, exercise, and sex. This release can boost good feelings and address pain. Physical and psychological responses to music are effective in reducing both acute and chronic physical pain.
Music helps you sleep
Music can also aid sleep by helping you feel relaxed and at ease. In one study, adults who listened to 45 minutes of music before going to sleep reported having better sleep quality beginning on the very first night. More encouraging is that this benefit appears to have a cumulative effect with study participants reporting better sleep the more often they incorporated music into their nightly routine.
Using music can also decrease the time it takes to fall asleep. In a study of women with symptoms of insomnia, participants played a self-selected album when getting into bed for 10 consecutive nights. Before adding music to their evening routine it took participants up an hour to fall asleep, after adding music it only took a few minutes minutes.
In addition to facilitating quickly falling asleep and improving sleep quality, playing music before bed can improve sleep efficiency, which means more time that you are in bed is actually spent sleeping. Improved sleep efficiency equals more consistent rest and less waking up during the night.
Music enhances sleep because of its effects on the regulation of hormones, including the stress hormone cortisol. Being stressed and having elevated levels of cortisol can increase alertness and lead to poor sleep. Listening to music decreases levels of cortisol, which may explain why it helps put people at ease and release stress.
Listening to music can also contribute to relaxation by soothing the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is part of your body’s natural system for controlling automatic or unconscious processes. Music improves sleep through calming parts of the autonomic nervous system, leading to slower breathing, lower heart rate, and reduced blood pressure.
Many people with poor sleep associate their bedrooms with frustration and sleepless nights. Music can counteract this, distracting from troubling or anxious thoughts.
So there you have it, playing and listening to music has huge emotional and cognitive benefits for your brain.
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