How Listening to Music Benefits Your Brain
Music is a universal language. It speaks to us in times of leisure by lifting our mood and guides us through celebrations ranging from weddings to funerals to graduations to religious ceremonies. Music influences our memories and our moods.
So what is it about music that allows it to produce such varied reactions? It turns out, music has multiple effects on our brain, including changing the structure and function in multiple areas.
Effect of music on brain structures and their functions
The brain is made up of multiple structures, each with a different function. Listening to music can affect the structure and/or function of many of them.
When we first listen to music, it stimulates the cochlear nuclei, taking the signal through our brain stem, cerebellum, and throughout the auditory sections of our brain. And because music involves both sides of our brain, one of the structures most affected by music is the corpus callosum, the large bundle of nerves connecting the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Listening to music alone will strengthen this connection, however, learning to play an instrument shows the most obvious change to this structure. In brain scans of musicians, the corpus callosum is notably larger than those who did not play an instrument.
Music also increases connections in grey and white matter. Both are important when it comes to brain communication. Grey matter houses our nerve cells and most of our motor neurons, where white matter is where the myelin-sheathed neural connections are. Strengthening these connections improves communication not just in the brain, but throughout our entire body. There have been different studies showing a positive correlation between listening to music and the amount of both grey and white matter in the brain. These studies suggest that music increases long-range communications because of increased synaptic connections.
The fore part of the brain, or the frontal lobe, is generally where our actions are controlled. This is largely where our motor cortex is located but action refers to other behaviors that aren’t strictly motion-related. These types of behaviors include active thinking, decision making, language, memory, and emotional regulation. It makes sense that playing an instrument would activate large portions of our frontal lobe as moving our bodies requires this area. However, even active listening lights up the frontal lobes. Tapping our fingers to the beat, dancing, and even bopping our heads to our favorite song activates this area as well.
As we activate our frontal lobe, we enjoy improved executive functioning, broader multisensory interaction, and better planning and problem-solving skills. Increased and continued activation leads to improved blood flow to the frontal lobe and increased synaptic connections, resulting in increased size.
By activating our emotional responses, music is largely tied to memory. This is generally due to activation of the hippocampus, the structure responsible for memory. Listening to music has been linked to neurogenesis, the creation of neurons, leading to a larger hippocampus and better memory function. Specifically, this improves our working memory, the short-term memory responsible for real-time processing. Increased working memory capacity leads to increased frontal lobe functions like decision making, problem-solving, and multitasking.
Music also impacts the temporal lobe, where our auditory and language centers are largely located. The right hemisphere interprets sound and music, while the left side of the brain interprets words and language. When we listen to music, everything from paying attention to musical interludes to deciphering lyrics means we activate areas on both sides of the brain. This whole-brain experience improves brain function as a whole while strengthening individual structures specifically.
Two such structures relating to language are Broca and Wernicke’s areas. Broca’s area enables us to produce speech. However, when we learn to play an instrument, we are learning to express and communicate the language of music. Which strengthens and enlarges this area, translating to improved speech communication as well.
Wernicke’s area is what we use to understand and comprehend written and spoken language. As we listen to music, this area is largely activated as we translate what we hear, even if it’s nonverbal. The more actively we listen to music, the more we work this area, strengthening and improving it. The strengthening of Wernicke’s area improves one’s ability to understand speech at all ages, especially those with brain defects that disable proper speech recognition.
Effect of music on pain and stress
Another way music serves to strengthen our brain and improve our lives is in the areas of pain and stress relief.
Pain and stress are separate but related in the brain. Both light up multiple pathways, sometimes overlapping and exacerbating the effects felt by each. Music acts as a powerful all-in-one antidote as it reduces both pain and stress. This not only improves the health and well-being of the individual but can continue to be used as a relaxation technique in our daily lives.
When it comes to music we find relaxing, genre doesn’t matter. Our brain responds to the music we enjoy, regardless of whether that’s hip-hop, rock, and roll, or classical instrumentals. By listening to music we enjoy, we can increase the chances of disrupting the pain-stress-pain feedback loop that exacerbates both chronic stress and chronic pain. By reducing our sensitivity to our perception of pain, we can enhance other healing techniques. Being able to relax is a key in not just lowering stress, but ensuring our body can respond to medical treatment.
Music may inhibit stress hormones released by the body and weaken arousal of the pituitary-adrenal axis, the interactive neuroendocrine unit responsible for the body’s stress response. By reducing cortisol, the hormone responsible for stress, music can help with relaxation and pain reduction. Music may also tap into the body’s opioid system, the natural pain relievers released by the body in the form of endorphins, enkephalins, and dynorphins. When we reduce our stress, we lower inflammation and allow our body to not just heal but perform optimally.
Music has many structural and functional benefits because it simultaneously engages so many different areas of our brain. Whether we choose to learn to play an instrument or simply include listening to music as part of our daily relaxation techniques, we know music can improve our body and strengthen our mind.