I’ve talked about longevity and the importance of the mind-body connection many times on the B.Rad podcast; covering one of my favorite, life-changing reads, The Biology of Belief (Episode 1 / Episode 2) and recording shows that feature the best tips for mindfulness, longevity, and productivity, straight from the experts, like Dr. Elisha Goldstein (see our episode, Mindfulness In The Age Of Distractibility And Hyper-Connectivity) as well as Quick and Actionable Healthy Lifestyle Tips.
But, when it comes to longevity, specifically the health of your brain, there is one practice that deserves a lot more attention. Because the very act of doing it results in some seriously impressive benefits, and changes your brain for the better in a way that no other activity can. Curious what it is? First, can you maybe guess what activity leads to
- Improved cognitive ability
- Superior multi sensory skills
- Increased neuroplasticity
- Healthy aging for your brain
- Reduced stress and depression
- Strengthened memory and reading skills?
If you guessed it was music, then you were right! Because both listening to music and playing an instrument (and even just the process of learning how to) has a profound impact on the way our brains function.
And the fascinating thing is, you can actually see the effect music has on the brain. Einstein’s brain was famously studied by scientists for years, and, as one NPR article noted, had both “unusually patterned parietal lobes and a structural quirk in his brain common in string players and linked to musical ability.”
And it’s not just fancy pants geniuses like Einstein either – scientists have long been studying the way music can alter the brain in a highly beneficial manner. From practicing an instrument to listening to your favorite songs to singing along to music on the radio, the verdict is clear: this fun activity does so much more than just put a smile on your face. Let’s break it down:
Listening to Music
- Research shows that it decreases the amount of the stress hormone, cortisol, in the body. It also reduces blood pressure and can relieve pain.
- Boosts productivity, mental alertness, and memory. “A total brain workout,” says one Johns Hopkins otolaryngologist.
- Causes your brain to release dopamine. One study focused on how music affects mood and performance while driving, and found that: “listening to music can positively impact mood while driving, which can be used to affect state and safe behavior. Additionally, driving performance in high demand situations is not negatively affected by music.” Good to know!
- Helps with overall cognitive function. One study on the cognitive effects of listening to background music on older adults concluded that our brain’s processing speed improves with upbeat music, while our memories can benefit from both upbeat and downbeat music.
- Note: listening to music with lyrics tends to have the opposite effect (check out this study) so listening to music that is familiar to you is best for focus.
- One study on how background music affects performance found that, even more than working in silence, listening to relaxing music specifically (think ocean waves, rain, classical) actually helps to decrease stress while increasing concentration and performance. An additional study from 2012 showed that students experienced better results on exams when they took them while listening to classical music.
- Boots physical performance when working out. Yes, that’s right, one sports psychology study found that listening to “upbeat” tunes increases your ability to exercise longer and actually delays fatigue! Upbeat music is also known for boosting your alertness.
- Boosts productivity when used between tasks. If you’ve gotten this far and you’re thinking, There is no way I won’t be distracted by putting on music while I’m working, then do not worry! Research has shown that merely listening to music in between tasks still helps boost productivity!
Learning to Play Music
- Music training is unique because it causes neuroplastic changes to occur in all areas of the brain.
- Improves cognitive function. This has been shown in both long and short-term training. Since playing music is reliant on using so many areas of your brain, the act of doing so strengthens a variety of neuronal connections. This in turn, increases signal efficiency (which means how neurons communicate with each other across the brain); perhaps explaining why it is that musicians seem to perform better in cognitive tasks than non-musicians.
- Boosts verbal skills. Studies have shown that 90% of children who take music lessons score higher on verbal skills (similar studies, and results, have also been done with adults).
- A neurologist from Harvard Medical School found that making music increases your IQ and academic performance.
- Helps healthy aging of the brain. We know from research that musicians have a leg up when it comes to maintaining cognitive abilities. But it’s important to note that these wonderful benefits don’t just come from long-term music training; they also occur when you do short-term training. One study from 2007 found that, “Piano Instruction enhances executive functioning and working memory in older adults.”
- Wonderful for overall health. Lowered dementia risks are associated with playing music, as found in this study about Leisure Activities and the Risk of Dementia in the Elderly. It’s also fantastic for improving fine and motor skills in stroke patients, as one study found with those who tried playing keyboard and the drums.
- Yes, singing counts too! If you’re not interested in buying or renting an instrument to learn to play, that’s ok, because singing also delivers a whole host of health benefits. Plus, it’s free and easy! One BBC article even called it “The World’s Most Accessible Stress Reliever.”
- Is a major stress-reliever. One study examined cortisol levels in its participants’ saliva before and after singing, and it was lower post-performance.
- Stimulates the immune response. There was a study done in 2004 that focused on two research subjects: participants who listened to music, and the participants who sang music. The singers actually had higher levels of immunoglobulin A, which is an antibody your system secretes that helps your body ward off infections. In comparison, those who had just listened to music, still showed signs of reduced stress hormones, but their immune system was not stimulated in the same way as the singers.
- Improves snoring. If you, your partner, or a friend or family member is a snorer, hook them up and let them in on this valuable trick! Some experts even think that singing (as well as playing wind instruments) is helpful for those with sleep apnea!
- Helps lung function. If you suffer from asthma, cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, singing can help as it results in strengthened respiratory muscles. It also increases the amount of oxygen in your blood.
- Memory enhancement for dementia patients. We already know listening to music is helpful for those with dementia, but singing also makes a huge, positive difference. One study called “Singing for the Brain” found that singing helped participants remember more than just lyrics; the act of singing actually prompted life memories they had forgotten about as well. And, participants who sang songs that they knew from a younger age actually caused a “spontaneous return of autobiographical details.”
- Helps with grief. It’s hard to imagine anything might help with something as difficult as grief, but studies on people dealing with grief have found that singing actually helped their depression symptoms from getting worse with time, and it helped with the stability of their well-being.
- Improves verbal skills. Research has found that singing can improve speaking ability for those with autism, Parkinson’s disease, aphasia (which occurs post-stroke), and stuttering. This is because singing stimulates multiple areas of your brain at one time, which may help people who have an impairment in one part of their brain communicate by using other areas of the brain.
When you think about just how much music can positively affect your life and health, it makes you wonder: why don’t more people do it? It’s understandable though. For one, it’s more of a commitment….or is that just an easy perception to have about music? Working out is a commitment. Eating healthy food is a commitment. Every part of living a healthy lifestyle is a commitment, something that requires time and planning, sometimes money and effort. It also could very likely be the fear factor; the fact that it’s something new, which can be overwhelming or intimidating, because you don’t even know where to start. And you’re probably not going to sound good when you’re first starting out. But who cares? You’re not trying to win a Grammy! It’s just about getting some incredible health benefits while also having some fun!
And don’t things like the fear of failure and the potential of embarrassing yourself (news flash: we all do this anyway) seem like pretty hollow reasons to not participate in this amazing anti-aging practice for your brain? Sure, it may be embarrassing to stumble a bit in the beginning, and yeah, you’re probably going to sound like crap, but what’s a little embarrassment or self-consciousness in exchange for all those benefits for your brain and overall health? As one Johns Hopkins otolaryngologist said: “There are few things that stimulate the brain the way music does. If you want to keep your brain engaged throughout the aging process, listening to or playing music is a great tool. It provides a total brain workout.”