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Music and the Brain

Updated: Jun 13, 2022

John, 45, had been under my care on the inpatient psych unit for several weeks. He suffered from bipolar disorder and mild mental retardation. Even after trials of different psychotropic medications, he had continued to have severe mood swings, frequent episodes of agitation and physical aggression. He had already struck several nurses on the inpatient unit causing injury. Both the treatment team and family were somewhat at their wit’s end. As I was making rounds one evening, the mother showed up to visit with him. As she saw me, she walked up to me and handed me a music CD, claiming that she had used it several times in the past to soothe and calm John down. With nothing to lose, the treatment team decided to utilize the CD. The effect on John was rather profound. He began to progressively be calmer. He also started to interact with the staff more appropriately. Many episodes of impending aggression were avoided by having John listen to music. After further minor adjustments in his medication regimen. John was soon able to be discharged to his family at home.

Cultural and Personal Experiences

Human beings have innately known about the beneficial effects of music on our psyche from the beginning of time. In almost every culture, music lessons to children have been valued and widely pursued. From personal experiences, we know music can touch our minds and souls in ways which can be very uplifting. In this context, is it surprising that mothers are known to sing in order to soothe their children in every culture?

Active Learning vs. Passive Listening

Even before any scientific studies involving the effect of music on the brain were conducted, different cultures recognized that a child’s brain benefits from actively learning music. It is now known that active learning of music, whether vocal or instrumental, enhances various mental abilities in children. These may include improved memory, attention, learning of new information, verbal abilities, non-verbal reasoning, motivation, behavior control, etc.

Musical Training and Age

Exposure to music is beneficial even in pre-school children. However, the greatest benefits to the brain seem to occur when music is actively learned between the ages of 10-13.

Music Type and the Brain

Much research has been done on this topic. At this time, it is believed that music which have 60 beats per minute pattern have the most beneficial effect on the human brain. It also seems that different musical instruments may have beneficial effects on different parts of the brain.

Music Therapy and Neurobiological Disorders

Music therapy essentially involves use of music interventions to optimize treatment outcome. It has shown to be helpful in the following conditions:

  • Dementia: Decreases agitation, sparks older memories, may improve socialization, eating, etc.

  • Stroke Victims: May help them recover faster and more completely, may improve motivation and social interactions.

  • Epilepsy: May decrease the number of seizures.

  • Dyslexia in Children: May improve language development and reverse some of the language deficits.

  • Pervasive Developmental Disorders: May decrease behavior problems and improve certain aspects of learning.

Music and Mind-Body

In general, listening and/or learning music seems to improve mood, decrease anxiety, improve socialization, increase positive associations, decrease heart rate, slow down breathing, decrease blood pressure, and improve brain wave patterns, etc.

So How Does Music Help Our Brain?

It is not known how exactly music helps our brain functions. However, we do know that active learning of music makes both sides of our brain work simultaneously which is believed to lead to overall better functioning of the brain. It should be noted that very few daily human activities make our brains work the same way music does. 

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