Articles on music and the brain

Why is music good for the brain?

Can music really affect your well-being, learning, cognitive function, quality of life, and even happiness? A recent survey on music and brain health conducted by AARP revealed some interesting findings about the impact of music on cognitive and emotional well-being:

  • Music listeners had higher scores for mental well-being and slightly reduced levels of anxiety and depression compared to people overall.
  • Of survey respondents who currently go to musical performances, 69% rated their brain health as “excellent” or “very good,” compared to 58% for those who went in the past and 52% for those who never attended.
  • Of those who reported often being exposed to music as a child, 68% rated their ability to learn new things as “excellent” or “very good,” compared to 50% of those who were not exposed to music.
  • Active musical engagement, including those over age 50, was associated with higher rates of happiness and good cognitive function.
  • Adults with no early music exposure but who currently engage in some music appreciation show above average mental well-being scores.

Let’s take a closer look at this study

Those are pretty impressive results, to be sure. However, this 20-minute online survey has some limitations. For one, it included 3,185 US adults ages 18 and older; that is a small number if you are extrapolating to 328 million people across the country. For another, it is really a survey of people’s opinions. For example, although people might report their brain health as “excellent,” there was no objective measure of brain health such as an MRI scan, or even a test to measure their cognition.

Lastly, even if the ratings were true, the findings are only correlations. They do not prove that, for example, it was the exposure to music as a child that led to one’s improved ability to learn new things. It may be equally likely that those children brought up in more affluent households were both more likely to be exposed to music and to be given a good education that led to their being able to easily learn new things later in life.

But let’s assume that the results of the AARP survey are indeed true. How can music have such impressive brain effects? Although we don’t know the answers for sure, developments in cognitive neuroscience over the last few years have allowed us to speculate on some possible mechanisms.

Music activates just about all of the brain

Music has been shown to activate some of the broadest and most diverse networks of the brain. Of course, music activates the auditory cortex in the temporal lobes close to your ears, but that’s just the beginning. The parts of the brain involved in emotion are not only activated during emotional music, they are also synchronized. Music also activates a variety of memory regions. And, interestingly, music activates the motor system. In fact, it has been theorized that it is the activation of the brain’s motor system that allows us to pick out the beat of the music even before we start tapping our foot to it!

Use it or lose it

Okay, so music activates just about all of the brain. Why is that so important? Well, have you ever heard the expression, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it”? It turns out this is actually true in the brain. Brain pathways — and even whole networks — are strengthened when they are used and are weakened when they are not used. The reason is that the brain is efficient; it isn’t going to bother keeping a brain pathway strong when it hasn’t been used in many years. The brain will use the neurons in that pathway for something else. These types of changes should be intuitively obvious to you — that’s why it is harder to speak that foreign language if you haven’t used it in 20 years; many of the old pathways have degraded and the neurons are being used for other purposes.

Music keeps your brain networks strong

So just how does music promote well-being, enhance learning, stimulate cognitive function, improve quality of life, and even induce happiness? The answer is, because music can activate almost all brain regions and networks, it can help to keep a myriad of brain pathways and networks strong, including those networks that are involved in well-being, learning, cognitive function, quality of life, and happiness. In fact, there is only one other situation in which you can activate so many brain networks all at once, and that is when you participate in social activities.

Dance the night away

How do you incorporate music into your life? It’s easy to do. Although the AARP survey found that those who actively listened to music showed the strongest brain benefits, even those who primarily listened to background music showed benefits, so you can turn that music on right now. Music can lift your mood, so put on a happy tune if you are feeling blue. Uptempo music can give you energy. And if you combine music with an aerobic and social activity, you can receive the maximum health benefit from it. Participate in a Zumba class. Do jazz aerobics. Jump to the rhythms of rock & roll. Or, better yet, go dancing. (And yes, in a pandemic, you can still benefit by doing these activities virtually.)

What Happens When You're Listening to Music

A popular class breaks down how our brains respond to music.

Since 2006, two UCF professors — neuroscientist Kiminobu Sugaya and world-renowned violinist Ayako Yonetani — have been teaching one of the most popular courses in The Burnett Honors College. “Music and the Brain” explores how music impacts brain function and human behavior, including by reducing stress, pain and symptoms of depression as well as improving cognitive and motor skills, spatial-temporal learning and neurogenesis, which is the brain’s ability to produce neurons. Sugaya and Yonetani teach how people with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s also respond positively to music.

“Usually in the late stages, Alzheimer’s patients are unresponsive,” Sugaya says. “But once you put in the headphones that play [their favorite] music, their eyes light up. They start moving and sometimes singing. The effect lasts maybe 10 minutes or so even after you turn off the music.”

This can be seen on an MRI, where “lots of different parts of the brain light up,” he says. We sat down with the professors, who are also husband and wife, and asked them to explain which parts of the brain are activated by music.

How the Brain Responds to Music

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Click on the region of the brain to the right to learn more about how it effects your perception of music.

Frontal Lobe


Used in thinking, decision-making and planning


“The frontal lobe is the most important to being a human. We have a big frontal lobe compared to other animals. By listening to music, we can enhance its functions,” Sugaya says.

Temporal Lobe


Processes what we hear


“We use the language center to appreciate music, which spans both sides of the brain, though language and words are interpreted in the left hemisphere while music and sounds are inerpreted in the right hemisphere,” Yonetani says.

Broca’s Area


Enables us to produce speech


“We use this part of the brain to express music,” Yonetani says. “Playing an instrument may improve your ability to communicate better.”

Wernicke’s Area


Comprehends written and spoken language


“We use this part of the brain to analyze and enjoy music,” Yonetani says.

Occipital Lobe


Processes what we see


“Professional musicians use the occipital cortex, which is the visual cortex, when they listen to music, while laypersons, like me, use the temporal lobe — the auditory and language center. This suggests that [musicians] might visualize a music score when they are listening to music,” Sugaya says.



Coordinates movement and stores physical memory


“An Alzheimer’s patient, even if he doesn’t recognize his wife, could still play the piano if he learned it when he was young because playing has become a muscle memory. Those memories in the cerebellum never fade out,” Sugaya says.

Nucleus Accumbens


Seeks pleasure and reward and plays a big role in addiction, as it releases the neurotransmitter dopamine


“Music can be a drug — a very addictive drug because it’s also acting on the same part of the brain as illegal drugs,” Sugaya says. “Music increases dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, similar to cocaine.”



Processes and triggers emotions


“Music can control your fear, make you ready to fight and increase pleasure,” Yonetani says. “When you feel shivers go down your spine, the amygdala is activated.”



Produces and retrieves memories, regulates emotional responses and helps us navigate. Considered the central processing unit of the brain, it’s one of the first regions of the brain to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease, leading to confusion and memory loss.


“Music may increase neurogenesis in the hippocampus, allowing production of new neurons and improving memory,” Yonetani says.



Maintains the body’s status quo, links the endocrine and nervous systems, and produces and releases essential hormones and chemicals that regulate thirst, appetite, sleep, mood, heart rate, body temperature, metabolism, growth and sex drive — to name just a few


If you play Mozart, for example, “heart rate and blood pressure reduce,” Sugaya says.

Corpus Callosum


Enables the left and right hemispheres to communicate, allowing for coordinated body movement as well as complex thoughts that require logic (left side) and intuition (right side)


“As a musician, you want to have the right-hand side and the left-hand side of the brain in coordination, so they talk to each other,” Sugaya says. This allows pianists, for example, to translate notes on a sheet to the keys their fingers hit to produce music.



Processes rhythm and regulates body movement and coordination


“Music can increase dopamine in this area, and music increases our response to rhythm,” Yonetani says. “By doing this, music temporarily stops the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Rhythmic music, for example, has been used to help Parkinson’s patients function, such as getting up and down and even walking because Parkinson’s patients need assistance in moving, and music can help them kind of like a cane. Unfortunately, after the music stops, the pathology comes back.”

Areas of the Brain

  • Frontal Lobe
  • Temporal Lobe
  • Broca’s Area
  • Wernicke’s Area
  • Occipital Lobe
  • Cerebellum
  • Nucleus Accumbens
  • Amygdala
  • Hippocampus
  • Hypothalamus
  • Corpus Callosum
  • Putamen

What Music is the Best?

Turns out, whether it’s rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, hip-hop or classical, your gray matter prefers the same music you do. “It depends on your personal background,” Yonetani says. For a while, researchers believed that classical music increased brain activity and made its listeners smarter, a phenomenon called the Mozart effect. Not necessarily true, say Sugaya and Yonetani. In recent studies, they’ve found that people with dementia respond better to the music they grew up listening to. “If you play someone’s favorite music, different parts of the brain light up,” Sugaya explains. “That means memories associated with music are emotional memories, which never fade out — even in Alzheimer’s patients.

Music Can…

  • Change your ability to preceive time
  • Tap into primal fear
  • Reduce seizures
  • Make you a better communicator
  • Make you stronger
  • Boost your immune system
  • Assist in repairing brain damage
  • Make you smarter
  • Evoke memories
  • Help Parkinson’s patients

Did you know?

Use it or lose it We are all born with more neurons than we actually need. Typically by the age of 8, our brains do a major neuron dump, removing any neurons perceived as unnecessary, which is why it’s easier to teach language and music to younger children. “If you learn music as a child, your brain becomes designed for music,” Sugaya says.

Oldest Instrument According to National Geographic, a 40,000-year-old vulture-bone flute is the world’s oldest musical instrument.

Hairy Cells The ear only has 3,500 inner hair cells, compared to the more than 100 million photoreceptors found in the eye. Yet our brains are remarkably adaptable to music.

Sing Along In the Sesotho language, the verb for singing and dancing are the same (ho bina), as it is assumed the two actions occur together.

Seasonal Songbirds

Sugaya has also conducted neurological studies on songbirds. His research has found that “canaries stop singing every autumn when the brain cells responsible for song generation die.” However, the neurons grow back over the winter months, and the birds learn their songs over again in the spring. He takes this as a sign that “music may increase neurogenesis in the brain.”

Music and the human brain

Knowledge about the benefits and unique chances that music gives to a growing child also encourages us to think about it pragmatically, to measure it by a measure of utilitarianism, and not just high spirituality. Research on the human brain and its interaction with music is at the cutting edge of science!

§ 1 Music and the brain

Music keeps the brain young! Neurophysiologists surprised everyone with the conclusion that in terms of the speed of reactions, the brain of older musicians not only surpasses the brain of their peers, but is also comparable to the reactions of young people who are just starting to play music.

Music can save lives! The unique story of the young virtuoso pianist Nikolai Miroshnichenko, who was born with two strokes to die, is a fantastic example of this. The boy could not lift even one finger when he began to study music. Now he is a virtuoso playing with an orchestra, but he cannot remember the multiplication table! These are the reserves of the brain and music, which we did not even know about.

Studies of the neurological effects of musical tones have shown that the brain is able to change the length and activity of brain waves in response to the tempo and character of the music. For example, when listening to music at a slow pace, the brain switches to functioning in alpha wave mode (a state of mild relaxation).

In a comprehensive study, scientists scanned the brains of people who experienced the bliss and pleasure of listening to music. At the same time, it was revealed that music activates the same pleasure centers that are involved in experiencing emotional and spiritual uplift, joyful enthusiasm, and love.

It has long been proven that music lessons involve all parts of the brain in complex work, ensuring the development of sensory systems (hear-see-feel), cognitive, motivational; systems responsible for movement, memory. For example, musical training in singing according to the relative system of Z. Kodai increases success in learning to read, develops phonemic hearing, and improves spatio-temporal representations in the study of mathematics.

There is no specialized center in the human brain responsible for the perception of music. The processing of musical information involves the temporal, frontal lobes of the brain, subcortical structures and numerous other areas that are usually involved in various forms of brain activity. Including those responsible for understanding speech, mathematical calculations, spatial sensations, etc. The amount of activity in these zones depends on the individual's personal musical experience. When we listen to music, the brain reacts to it by activating several zones at once outside the purely auditory cortex. The processing of musical information is influenced by the visual, tactile, emotional, spatial, motor, speech experience of a person!

Modern scientists in the field of neuroscience suggested that every child on Earth is born with pre-installed programs for the perception of speech and languages, which allows any healthy child to easily learn their native language. It seems that there is such a “pre-installed” program for the perception of music too! The opportunity to see the intrauterine development of a person confirmed that even before birth, the baby reacts to music, especially to the singing of the mother. Babies 2-3 months old recognize a familiar melody, they react to music with their whole body, “catch” it even with their mouths. At the same time, they smile happily or cry, confirming the ability to understand music without any learning and words!

Observant music directors know from their own experience that young children easily distinguish between contrasting expressive means, such as “loud-quiet”, “fun-sad”, “high-low”, “fast-slow”, and can selectively react to them . Of course, this understanding is largely based on the child's existing speech and everyday experience, but the synesthesia of all types of experiences in musical perception strikes the imagination of teachers.

The obtained data indicate that the perception of music has a biological basis and is mediated by the functional organization of the brain.

“Musical activity should be recognized as the broadest and most comprehensive training for brain cells and the development of connections between them: the entire cerebral cortex is active during the performance of music, which means that the whole person is active” (Weinberger 1998, p. 38). Musical learning increases the number of neurons that respond to sounds and forms new connections between them. The area of ​​active zones of a professional musician is 25% larger than that of an ordinary person.

At the end of the article, this world-famous scientist writes: “Is there anything in the world that is as joyful and at the same time useful for education? Not! There is nothing to compare music with. That is why creative learning through music seems to us today the same urgent task as teaching music as such. (Weinberger 1998, p. 41).

So why is the human brain so superbly adapted to the perception of music? How could nature create Music (the most complex metalanguage), give people all over the Earth universal abilities to understand it - and all this only so that illiterate teachers and ignorant managers use musical education to embellish and achieve their ambitions?!

C. Orff once said that daily music lessons are necessary for the development of a good person... We must forever leave embellishing ideas about the role of music and musical education. Musical abilities are part of the human biological heritage, and they should be used in the education system for their intended purpose: to serve the development of the child.

The brain and music: how different genres affect a person


© Alice Moore/Unsplash

Author Irina Rudevich

February 22, 2019

Music can be turned on for entertainment, creating a certain mood and improving well-being. Compositions of various genres affect the brain in different ways, so you can use them to...

© eric nopanen/unsplash

Specialists from the US Department of Homeland Security conducted a musical experiment, as a result of which they confirmed that music helps to cope with stress. The study was based on combinations of different frequencies, durations and amplitudes of tracks, which included the subjects, observing the transition of their state from tension to relaxation. Most of the soothing compositions were variants of classical pieces close to Chopin's music. Such works reduced the level of cortisol in the blood, had a sedative and analgesic effect.

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If it is difficult to force yourself to take up reports after the weekend, you need not only to find motivation, but also to create suitable conditions for comfortable brain work. Scientists have found that Mozart's music and similar compositions activate attention and improve concentration. According to a report from the Stanford University Medical Center, music affects areas of the brain associated with concentration and memory development. At the same time, peak brain activity occurs during periods of silence between sounds - a relaxed brain instantly turns on. Scientists conducted a study using functional magnetic resonance imaging. They tracked which parts of the brain are most active. Experts came to the conclusion that the music of the Baroque era, written 200 years ago, helps a person to gather his thoughts and process a large stream of information.

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Mozart's music helps to significantly improve memory and activate neural connections that affect cognitive abilities. The scientists divided the participants into age groups, each of which included recordings of Mozart and Beethoven. As a result, it was noted that those who listened to Mozart's sonatas increased their intellectual performance. People memorized new information better, were less biased towards solving an unfamiliar task. In groups of participants listening to "Fur Elise", no such obvious changes were observed, so the results of the experiment were called the Mozart effect.

The hormone dopamine is produced as a reward for achieving goals and helps create a good mood. A study tracking neural mechanisms using tomography showed that during the experiment, the subjects experienced an increase in blood flow, activated brain regions responsible for emotions, arousal and motivation. Listening to music you enjoy activates the reward system in your brain just as much as eating sugary or fatty foods or hanging out with your loved ones.

Stefan Kelsch, a music psychologist at the Free University in Germany, has concluded that listening to sad music has a positive effect on empathic qualities and helps a person cope with problems. In his opinion, the listener associates himself with the performer, empathizes with him, and at this time the brain regulates emotions, allowing you to throw out excess negativity. At the same time, such sadness does not cause consequences on a par with real sadness that occurs in difficult situations. Thus, sad music contributes to the experience of pain without harm to psychological health.

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Good news for fans of heavy music like heavy metal: a study at the University of Queensland in Australia confirmed that such music causes outburst rather than accumulation of aggression. The experiment involved 39 people who included punk rock, scream and metal. The researchers asked the participants questions that might make them angry. If at the same time the music played half the time of the interview, it was turned off and on again several times in a row. While listening to tracks, people calmed down faster. According to scientists, their attention switched to another object, which made it possible to throw out aggression not at the interlocutor, but into musical perception.

What can his playlist say about a new acquaintance? It turns out that not only music affects a person, but a person also chooses music based on personality traits.

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