Did you know that playing music can make you smarter?
Science has shown that listening to and playing music has positive effects on your brain's wellness, like increased focus, decreased anxiety, and even reduced risk for dementia.
So what is it that makes music so powerful? The brain is a fascinating piece of biological machinery - processing, relaying, and storing every little piece of information, not only from its environmental surroundings but also from within itself.
All of this external and internal data is passed between the different regions of your brain over a vast network of synapses. And all of this happens in the blink of an eye. With a piece of hardware like that between your ears, it's only natural you'd want to keep it in shape, right? Well, one of the best ways to give your brain a full workout is to play music. For years, scientists have studied the fascinating cognitive effects music has on your mental health and well-being.
You’ve probably heard that music makes you smarter or even contributes to having better test scores, but how does that actually happen? Let's start by looking at our brain’s anatomy. The brain breaks down into three different parts: the Cerebrum, the Cerebellum, and the Brain Stem. We're going to focus on the four lobes of the Cerebrum. And When humans listen to music, different parts of the brain react. So where does music affect the brain?
The frontal lobe: is the largest lobe of the brain, located in the front of the head. It's responsible for personality, critical thinking, and movement. It also contains Broca's Area, which is associated with speech ability, so you can thank your aunt's frontal lobe for making Thanksgiving awkward by only talking about her hairless cat, Frank.
The parietal lobe: is located in the middle part of the brain. The parietal lobe helps us identify objects and figure out spacial relationships, like how close something is to your body. But it also helps you interpret pain and touch. The parietal lobe houses Wernicke's Area, which is how the brain understands spoken language.
The occipital lobe: is located in the back of the brain and is all about vision. Directly connected to the eyeballs, this part of the brain allows us to see everything - what it is, what color it is, and whether or not what we're seeing represents anything like a word or a symbol.
The temporal lobes: which makes up the sides of the brain. The temporal lobes are involved in short-term memory, speech, and a little bit of smell. These sit behind the ears and are in charge of processing all of the information that comes in through them. Just like most of our body parts that come in pairs, the temporal lobes have a dominant side and a non-dominant side, and which is which depends on the person. The dominant lobe helps you understand language and learn and remember verbal information, like when you remember, not to mention how ugly Frank the cat is. The dominant temporal lobe is involved in learning and remembering non-verbal information, such as spatial memory. This would come in handy with a game like Simon.
The non-dominant lobe also helps you remember music. Because of this auditory connection, it makes sense that music would activate the temporal lobes. However, studies have shown that even simply listening to music will simultaneously activate all of these regions and parts of the brain that are associated with emotion, and it even encourages them to work together. Not only that, but it's also been shown to boost mood and learning capacity.
If you were alive in the '90s, you're probably familiar with a theory called "The Mozart Effect" that began as a study around music and spatial understanding.
However, most of the current data shows that listening to any music provides huge benefits and that playing music provides even more. While listening to music activates the parts of your brain that process sound, emotion, and critical thinking, playing music engages all of those same regions in different ways while bringing in other areas of the brain to process even more sensory input.
Take, for example, a pianist. They sit down at the piano, their eyes skim over the sheet music, and their occipital lobe turns those symbols into information that they understand. It then works in conjunction with their parietal and their frontal lobes to translate that data and guide their hand to the piano key. They play a note. Their brain stores the sensation of how hard or soft they played it using the physical feeling of the key on their finger and the sound of the piano itself to determine whether or not they need to make adjustments. All of this happens simultaneously, and they continue through the piece. This cognitive processing of various sensory inputs repeats itself over and over again every microsecond.
To add to that, Their cerebellum and their amygdala are along for the ride, processing the emotional input and throwing it into the mix. This full brain activation and use of so many networks and connections literally and physically change your brain by increasing its neuroplasticity - which is the brain's ability to learn new things and create more connections. Playing music is like strengthening and stretching your brain to gain more strength and flexibility.
A study from my alma mater, the University of Kansas, [Nerd Alert!], showed that elementary school students with music education programs scored much higher in English and math standardized tests. This may be due to a few factors - including a correlation between the focus needed for both music study and standardized test-taking. But other studies also point to the fact that music is very mathematical in nature. Intervals in scales, rhythmic subdivisions, and even the way keys are physically arranged on a piano are all based on mathematical relationships.
For the most part, music’s effect on the brain is pretty similar for all humans. In the book “Musicophilia,” researcher Oliver Sacks notes that the parts of the brain associated with feelings and emotions are affected by music regardless of the listener's external knowledge or experience - which is why you can empathize with Billy Ray Cyrus’ "Achy Breaky Heart," even if you’ve never experienced a heartbreak of your own.
Rhythm, specifically, has been shown to produce the same response in the brains of listeners across different cultures and other demographics - even more so than melody or harmony. Rhythm is so powerful that it can trigger parts of the brain that control motor movement to begin activities like tapping your foot before you’re even aware you’re doing it. Another study determined that the right temporal lobe derives meaning from music very similar to the way it derives meaning in language. An angry chord reads almost the same way as an angry word.
The emotions we feel in response to music are generated in some of the deepest, oldest parts of the brain. And they involve some powerful chemical mechanisms like the release of dopamine, which makes you feel good.
The multi-sensory nature of music can allow the brain to recall past experiences with greater ease. It's this very function that has even led researchers to some promising discoveries involving music and triggering memories in people experiencing dementia. Playing music can actually protect the brain from dementia before it even starts.
Several studies have shown that improvising, specifically, had an even more significant cognitive effect on memory and other functions in older participants than simply imitating musical phrases. Researchers are still continuing to learn more about music and the brain - but there is plenty of scientific data that shows that music is good for all kinds of cognitive functions like memory, motor skills, emotional expression, language processing, mathematical and spatial awareness, and creativity.
You heard it here music is good for your brain! So put on your favorite songs, or better yet - pick up any instrument and start noodling around.
Your brain will thank you!