Whether you like classic rock, pop, country, or jazz, music has powerful roots and plays a strong role in our everyday lives. From entertaining over the loudspeaker while shopping at the grocery store to adding emotive punch to dramatic scenes in movies and TV shows, music also has numerous positive effects on the brain. Music aids in pain reduction, stress relief, memory function, brain organization—and even boosts brain activity in Alzheimer’s patients.
Listening to music triggers the release of opioids, which are the body’s natural pain relievers. A 2014 study, found a connection between listening to music and lower pain levels for those with fibromyalgia—a musculoskeletal disorder characterized by fatigue, cognitive disturbances, and memory issues. Patients exposed to self-chosen, pleasant music rated their pain experience during a “timed-up and go task” as much lower after listening to music. Patients also had increased functional mobility.
Researchers speculate that listening to music helps organize the firing of nerve cells in the right half of the cerebral cortex—the part of the brain responsible for higher functions. As such, music acts as an “exercise” that warms up selective brain cells allowing them to process information more quickly and effectively. Because of music’s strong connection with emotion, it can also affect your episodic memory, leading to an increased ability to recall past events.
In a study with 89 dementia patients, results showed that singing and listening to music improved mood, orientation, attention, executive function, and general cognition. This has important implications for dementia care and rehabilitation.
Relaxing music can alleviate stress—thought to be critically involved in the development and progression of dementia—by lowering cortisol levels, which is the hormone released in response to stress. Current findings indicate that music around 60 beats per minute can cause the brain to synchronize with the beat causing alpha brain waves. These brain waves are what is present when we are relaxed and conscious. To induce sleep, researchers suggest donating 45 minutes of listening to calming music to align with a delta brainwave of 5 hertz.
Music can also reduce the stress on patients who have to be conscious during an operation. One study of 80 patients undergoing cataract and urologic surgeries found that patients who were assigned Mozart piano sonatas had lower blood pressures and heart rates, as well as lower levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cytokine interleukin-6.
Overall, current findings indicate music has a strong biological basis and the brain is adept at processing music organizationally. Many regions of the brain participate in specific aspects of music processing, from perception of melodies to evoking strong emotional reactions.
As Billy Joel said, “I think music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we are from, music unites us all.” Music’s commonality and universality create a shared experience that acts as a medicine for the soul.