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Music and its Effects on Mental Health

By: Haley Boyer

Have you had a musical experience that changes you? Maybe you played music for years, and it’s changed the way you operate within the world, or even the way you think about yourself. Maybe you went to such an amazing concert that left you with post-concert euphoria for hours or days afterwards.

As you are emotionally changed, there’s actually evidence that music is changing you mentally too!

In fact, there are a lot of ways that music relates to our brain, and changes it physically, or hormonally. There’s been extensive study into these areas, including how music affects brain development, depression, and dementia.  As music is with us throughout our lifetime, so is the way it changes our brains. 

silhouette of man and woman playing guitars

There is a lot of evidence that music helps brain development. Whether young or old, lifelong performers or new, “Musicians have been shown to have greater volume of the auditory cortex (surface), premotor regions, cerebellum, and anterior corpus callosum compared to non-musicians.” (Devere pg3) 


These benefits begin to develop in musicians of any age at about 6 months.  “In one study, musically naïve participants (ages 30-85) who received six months of piano lessons compared with no treatment control group showed improved performance on specific cognitive tasks that represent executive function, such as speed of processing information, verbal fluency, and enhanced mood.” (Devere pg3) 


Children who had musical training displayed better verbal memory than children without. (Nair) These findings are similar for adults, and there are studies that show playing music delays and protects against the onset of dementia and cognitive decline, as I’ll discuss in the last paragraph. 


Children who had musical training before they were 12 years old had an “enhanced size of the left planum temporale region,” which is a part of the left temporal lobe who’s use directly corresponds to verbal memory. (Nair) Music is also unique in that it activates both sides of the brain to an amazing extent. “Researchers indicate that the left hemisphere analyzes the structure of music, while the right hemisphere focuses on the melody; thus music synchronizes the right and left hemispheres of the brain.” (Yoon, pg5) Babies in particular show an amazing musical and aural perception. In a study by Hannon and Trehub, in a limited time, infants in Canada were able to develop “native like” perception to music from another culture, in this case Balkan music, which has extremely unique rhythmic patterns made up of alternating 5 and 7 patterns. Canadian adults were unable to develop this same aural perception to the music. (Stewart and Walsh)


More than brain development, there are studies that show music can be instrumental in treating people with depression. Music has already been proven to be effective for some other disorders “like the management of acute pain,… cancer pain,… and labor pain… This beneficial effect has been in part explained by the response to music and the physiological connectivity of the mesolimbic system, which provokes pleasurable experiences…” (Castillo-Perez). Since depression is heavily related to brain chemistry and hormones, it makes sense that music therapy could be a treatment tool for those suffering from it. In a 2004 study, people with major depressive disorders were engaged in music therapy for 2 weeks. 


At the end of this time, “depressive scores for the music-listening group were significantly reduced, as were their sub-scores of depression in comparison with control” (Castillo-Perez). And, in a 2006 study with people with chronic non-malignant pain, “people… exposed to music showed more power and less pain, depression, and disability than the control groups.” (Castillo-Perez) In a study done more recently in 2017, the researchers found that “music therapy provides short‐term beneficial effects for people with depression. Music therapy added to treatment as usual (TAU) seems to improve depressive symptoms compared with TAU alone…Music therapy also shows efficacy in decreasing anxiety levels and improving functioning of depressed individuals.” (Aalbers)


In addition to brain development and treating depression, there has been pretty extensive study about other ways music relates to and changes the brain, particularly brains that have dementia or are going through cognitive decline due to age or another disease. In terms of dementia and general cognitive decline, it is first worth noting that the scientific studies that have taken place are a bit less scientific than one might expect. Dr. Ronald Devere says, “It is worth noting that the experimental rigor of many of these trials is lacking, and biases have interfered with results. Some of the limitations of these studies include small sample sizes, lack of randomization, group dissimilarity, and no control groups. The results of many of these studies, therefore, need to be interpreted with some caution.” (Devere, pg 1) In ‘Music and Dementia,’ the authors note the O’Connor review, which “report(s)  that only 25 of 118 studies met what they considered a standard quality.”  


This is a long way of saying that more study is needed, and that we need to be wary of complete faith in all the results of these studies. 


That being said, almost all studies reflect at least a minor positive correlation between cognitive ability and memory, and music. There has been many qualitative studies in particular, with such stories as Clive, who has Herpes Encephalitis and has a memory span of 15 seconds. Clive was a musician, and despite this, his musical power remained “totally intact” (Devere, pg2). Clive could remember pieces he had played, play piano and sing, and even read new pieces. However, he retained no memory of these practice sessions, and couldn’t truly learn an entire new work. When he was playing, “he was himself again and wholly alive.” (Devere pg 2)


In a more quantitative study, Balakrishnan R Nair, William Browne, John Marley, and Christian Heim did an evaluation on music and specifically its effects on challenging behaviors related to dementia and cognitive decline. There were several factors in this study, including whether the music was familiar to the patient, and what kind of music was played. In the study, they played specifically calm, slow movements of baroque music. The participants who experienced this displayed a 40% decrease in challenging behavior, including wandering, paranoia, sleep disturbance, and aggression. (Nair) 


There are also studies that say the playing of music also helps prevent dementia and cognitive decline, and preserves brain plasticity. “Studies have shown that elderly musicians outperform nonmusicians on tasks assessing auditory processing, cognitive control, and comprehension of speech in noisy environments.”(Devere pg3) Also, in a series of interviews with older orchestra members, “no participant was aware of current or former members of the orchestra with dementia.” (Devere pg3)


It’s worth noting that in some studies, personalized choice of music for the patient was more successful than playing just anything. Music played that was specific to the participant’s youth and connected to their life stimulated memories, enhanced their communication, and even in cases of impaired motor control such as Parkinson’s patients, temporarily improved motor skills, such as dancing. 


So, there is plenty of evidence that music changes your brain, and your brain chemistry! 


From brain development in young children, to depression in adolescents and adults, to dementia and other causes of cognitive decline in the elderly, music aids in the treatment of cognitive disorders and the building of neural pathways in both parts of the brain. So music is important, not only for enjoyment and quality of life, but also to heal your brain! 


Next time you are feeling anxious or depressed, it might be worth it to put on some calming music to help get through your day.

Devere , Ronald. Music and Dementia: An Overview. Practical Neurology, June 2017, https://assets.bmctoday.net/practicalneurology/pdfs/pn0617_CF_Music.pdf

Chan, A., Ho, YC. & Cheung, MC. Music training improves verbal memory. Nature 396, 128 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1038/24075 

Yoon, Jenny Nam. “Music in the Classroom: Its Influence on Children’s Brain Development, Academic Performance, and Practical Life Skills.” Biola University, 2000. 

Stewart, Lauren, and Vincent Walsh. “Infant Learning: Music and the Baby Brain.” Current Biology, vol. 15, no. 21, 8 Nov. 2005, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2005.10.019.

Castillo-Pérez, S., et al. Effects of music therapy on depression compared with psychotherapy. The Arts in Psychotherapy (2010), doi:10.1016/j.aip.2010.07.001 

Aalbers S, Fusar‐Poli L, Freeman RE, Spreen M, Ket JCF, Vink AC, Maratos A, Crawford M, Chen XJ, Gold C. Music therapy for depression. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2017, Issue 11. Art. No.: CD004517. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD004517.pub3. Accessed 11 April 2022.

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