The Mental Impact of Song: How Music Affects Your Brain

Ever put on one of your favorite tunes when you’re feeling down?

A lot of us can attest that music has a certain healing quality that eases our stress, fears, and concerns. Whether you prefer rock, country, hip hop, or electronic, there’s usually no doubt that listening to the music we like makes us feel better.

There’s a lot of research out there to validate the restorative properties of music, particularly during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. But how does music really improve our mood biologically? How do our brains react to music? And is it really one of the best tools for developing a healthy brain?

Let’s see what the science has to say!

The Effect of Music on the Brain

Music can create emotional responses to control our emotions to an extent. For instance, certain songs might make you feel happy, sad, empowered, or inspired.

This idea is more than just a gut-feeling, though—research has shown that music encourages the brain to process different emotions and regulate different neurological chemicals.

When you listen to music, many parts of your brain instantly activate to register the “sounds” you hear as “music.”

Anatomically, this includes the cerebellum (associated with timing and rhythm), several cortices (which control your motor skills and visual/audible perception), and even the amygdala and hippocampus (both of which are linked directly to memory and deep emotions). All of these mechanisms work together to process and interpret the music you hear, stimulating the release of serotonin and changing the way you feel almost immediately.

Simply put, music lights up your brain like a Christmas tree.

Studies have also suggested that repeated exposure to music over time can even enhance the connectivity of certain regions of the brain, allowing for better optimized brain function for tasks outside of music. Cognitive stimulation brought about by your favorite song can pick up your mood by helping your brain focus on producing positive emotions instead of obsessing over worries and life hardships.

How Music Improves Memory and Physical Performance

The connection between your brain and the music you listen to is stronger than you might think. Aside from improving your mood, music also helps you retain information more easily for better recall later.

In essence, music is foundational for a strong memory.

One study revolving around the memory-enhancing attributes of music, piloted by the nonprofit organization Music and Memory, reports that music might be the key to tapping into certain regions of the brain that are unaffected by mental diseases responsible for memory loss, such as Alzheimer’s. The research demonstrates that subjects listening to their preferred type of music had supplementary motor areas of their brain stimulated, allowing them to reestablish their “attentive network” and regain partially functional memory.

Another bit of research from the same organization also revealed that psychotropic medication use and aggressive patient behavior in nursing homes were greatly reduced after introducing therapeutical music to the picture.

When it comes to physical performance, there’s no doubt music can help us feel less pain and focus on completing the exercise. A 2018 study found that music increases the presence of beta waves in the brain, which are closely linked to the ability to focus and enhance the perceived enjoyment of the workout itself.

Basically, music influences us to not only have workouts that are more effective, but it also helps us feel better about exercising at all. Anything that makes you more likely to work out is surely a win!

The Magic of Music Therapy

Thanks to music’s close link to brain activity, it has proven to be a good therapy option for those suffering from mental trauma.

As long ago as the early 20th century, music has been used as a clinical aid to help treat patients diagnosed with mental illnesses such as depression, dementia, and PTSD. Today its use is even more popular, with specific music selections being chosen to stimulate different neurological pathways in patients with mental disease or even optimize the way the brain works in healthy individuals.

The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) has a number of fascinating papers about the applications of song to help populations improve their mental clarity and navigate out of tough lifestyles. Some of the obstacles music therapy tackles includes addiction, pain, memory disorders, substance abuse, and more. Music therapy has even been utilized for special education settings, giving children a motivational structure to develop non-musical skills in academics and communication.

The use of music as a relaxant is even becoming more common in hospital settings, where it’s easy for patients to feel anxious or lonely. One study found that replacing the silent drone of a hospital room with calming music reduced stress, blood pressure, and even the trauma people sometimes experienced after a recent procedure.

Another study even suggests that dentists should hire trained music therapists to help their patients remain calm and compliant and forgo dental anxiety. That root canal doesn’t seem so scary anymore!

Listen to Your Favorite Music for a Healthy Brain

While the human brain is still somewhat of a mystery to even the most esteemed of scientists, a lot of information out there makes it clear that music is deeply connected with our thoughts and feelings.

If you can, incorporate music that resonates with you into a daily habit. An intentional time to listen to your favorite songs might be just the pick-me-up you need to tackle life head-on. And if you’re strapped for time, you can always try to listen to music while doing other activities, such as driving or cooking.

Music helps us deal with difficult life events and experiences while simultaneously inspiring us to make the most of our days. A better mood affects nearly every aspect of our lives, from physical health to a confident and rewarding social life.

But just as important, good music also facilitates our memory and focus, allowing us to learn faster, exercise better, and remember events much more clearly. These are all aspects of a healthy mind, and are to be cherished for many years.

So do your brain a favor: turn up the volume on your favorite music!