Is there anything more universal than music? It comforts us when we’re sad, and we use it to celebrate in times of joy. Music helps us power through chores and long trips. For musicians, you don’t have to be a virtuoso to express yourself artistically through your instrument.
But did you know that while music nourishes the soul, it also sharpens the mind? That’s right. Music is not only good – it’s good for you!
Researchers are still trying to nail down the physiology and psychology of music’s effects on our brains and how that triggers other responses. What they have determined, through advanced imaging and other studies, is that music cranks up brain activity like no other stimuli. When we hear or play music, critical parts of our brain light up like Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
According to one Harvard Medical School post, “The human brain and nervous system are hard-wired to distinguish music from noise and to respond to rhythm and repetition, tones and tunes...a varied group of studies suggests that music may enhance human health and performance.”
You’re probably familiar with the controversial "Mozart effect" study published in the 1990s. If not, here’s the quick and dirty: Inspired by an observation that many musicians are better at math than their peers, researchers at the University of California, Irvine, wanted to see if music, specifically Mozart’s, could help raise IQ scores. Out of three groups of college students, the one that heard 10 minutes of Mozart consistently tested higher than the other two. Those other groups either listened to “relaxation” sounds or sat in silence.
Also, there is strong evidence that learning to read music and play the violin – and other instruments – helps children understand and perform better at math. Perhaps it won’t turn a math-adverse child into a budding physicist, but think how wonderful it would be if music helps that child improve. Going from failing or below average to an average range can be life-changing for some young students.
Improving Memory with Music
Just like an active, healthy lifestyle helps your muscles and bones stay strong, exercising your mind pays dividends for your brain. And that goes beyond playing chess or doing complex puzzles. Listening to or playing music is like “a total brain workout,” according to a Johns Hopkins Medicine article.
“Music is structural, mathematical and architectural. It’s based on relationships between one note and the next. You may not be aware of it, but your brain has to do a lot of computing to make sense of it,” the article states.
One of the benefits of keeping your mind sharp with music is improved memory. After the “Mozart study,” further studies probing the effects of music on the human brain yielded consistent findings that classical music has the most significant positive impact on memory. One experiment showed that people listening to classical music performed better on short-term memory tests than those who did not.
Some researchers have shown promising results that music therapy can reduce the decline of dementia patients, including those suffering from Alzheimer's. Incorporating music into treatment can improve cognition in patients while lessening other symptoms and helping patients socialize.
In the Mood
It’s no secret that music evokes an emotional response in listeners. That’s why music is carefully selected for use in films, TV shows, and advertising. One interesting finding suggests that while music has an effect on a listener’s mood, it’s not always as expected. In one example, subjects who heard music from Stravinsky that was intended to be “sad” found the music to be cathartic. The conclusion was that while the music may not have directly stimulated a mood in the subject, it served as a vehicle to help that person get to a new perspective.
Good for Stress Relief
While there are many pharmaceutical aides to help reduce stress and anxiety, there’s strong evidence that music can help, too. An article published by the University of Nevada, Reno, Counseling Services cites a study that says “listening to music seems to be able to change brain functioning to the same extent as medication." The article states that classical music, especially when mixed with the sounds of rain and nature, as well as music from Native American and Celtic cultures, among others, helps stressed subjects to relax.
There are countless reasons why music in general – and classical in particular – is enjoyable and essential to our lives. But as a music student or teacher who devotes so much of your passion and time to your art, doesn’t it feel extra good knowing music has so many health benefits, too? We bet it does!
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