“Music is the medicine of the mind.” That is what American soldier and politician John A. Logan (1826–1886) once said. I kind of agree with it. Being a classically trained mezzosoprano, I know from experience that music has a positive effect on the mind. It can calm us down or cheer us up when we sing or hum our favorite musical pieces.
But does it affect our brain? The research finds that music can affect brain functioning in many ways. It can affect our cognitive functioning including learning, memory, and attention/concentration (Guimaraes-Mendes, C et al. 2021). It also enhances cerebral plasticity in the brain and facilitates regeneration and repair of neurons (Fukui, H. & Toyoshima, K. 2008).
Listening to music activates various regions of the brain, mainly the auditory cortex (located in the temporal lobes), which is critical for processing incoming auditory information. It also activates the primary motor cortex, premotor cortex, and cerebellum. Just listening to music without performing it engages a large and complex network of many brain regions.
Listening to music may have a positive effect on verbal memory (remembering verbal information) and visual-spatial memory (recognizing shapes, patterns, and positions of objects). The results of a 1996 study indicated that music has a positive effect on recalling verbal material (McElhinney, M. & Annett, J.M.) In another study (Purnell-Webb, P. & Speelman, C.P. 2008), 100 undergraduate psychology students were learning a four-verse ballad while listening to familiar and unfamiliar melodies and rhythms. The results indicated that rhythm even without the musical accompaniment can facilitate recall of text. In a 2010 study (Angel, L.A. et al.), college students completed spatial processing and linguistic tasks while listening to excerpts from Mozart's symphonies. The results indicated an increase in the speed of spatial processing and accuracy in linguistic processing.
There are several studies on Mozart’s music and its effect on cognition and emotions, but the results are mixed. There are some that indicate the positive effect of his music. (I can swear to it since Mozart is my favorite composer.) Some say that the “Mozart effect” does not really exist. A 2015 study (Verussio, W. et al.) investigated the influence of Mozart’s music on brain activity. The subjects were 10 healthy adults, 10 healthy elderly, and 10 elderly with diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment (MCI). The subjects were listening to Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major (K448). The EEG was recorded during basal rest and during listening.
The results indicated that listening to Mozart increased brain wave activity linked to memory, cognition, and problem-solving in the healthy adults and elderly, but there were no changes in the participants with MCI. The researchers concluded that Mozart’s music can activate a network of interconnected brain regions related to attention and other cognitive functions. Also, the above-described 2010 research study suggested a positive effect of Mozart’s music on brain cognitive functioning.
Music can be helpful in the treatment of emotional and neurological disorders including stroke, Parkinson’s disease, brain injuries, and dementias (Speranza, L. et al. 2021). Research also suggests that playing a musical instrument can be a protective factor against cognitive impairments and dementia.
On personal experience, when I worked in the New Mexico state hospital, I was put in charge of the unit for senior patients with different forms and stages of dementia. Having many years of musical education, I knew perfectly well the therapeutic effects of music. One of the first things I did was to reorganize the daytime activities for my patients so music could be emphasized. I designed activities that included listening to uplifting music, singing together, and dancing time. All my patients, even those with advanced dementia, “lighted up” during the musical activities, which was really nice and uplifting to observe.
It needs to be emphasized that some studies indicate that some kinds of music can have a negative effect (i.e., make us sad or anxious). Generally speaking, it does matter what kind of music we are listening to. So it is important to listen to music that will be uplifting, not something that will make us anxious or sad. Let’s listen to good and uplifting music that may improve our brain's cognitive functioning.
About the Author
Barbara Koltuska-Haskin, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist in private practice in Albuquerque, New Mexico with over 30 years of clinical experience, and the author of How My Brain Works: A Guide to Understanding It Better and Keeping It Healthy. Her book has won 2 International Book Awards and 5 National Book Awards.