by Toni Grosvenor
Imagine this: after an incredibly stressful day of sticking your head in book after book and expanding your brain so much that you feel as though it’ll spontaneously combust, you decide to decompress by blasting your favourite songs directly into your eardrums at an almost dangerous volume (enough for your phone to overshadow your screen with the tedious warning that ‘Listening to your headphones at a high volume can damage your hearing’). While it is significantly better to heed your device’s advice in the long run, where is the fun in forcing yourself to indulge in a show-stopping tune or a classic rock ballad with the volume bar at only approximately halfway? In this month’s edition of Let’s Get Brainy, I will be delving into the undeniable benefits of occasionally assaulting your ears with irresistibly catchy melodies and toe-tapping beats, in addition to providing some scientific evidence as to why you should consider learning how to play a musical instrument, because even if you are tone deaf and have two left feet, it’s always good to try something different and you’ll quickly notice the overwhelming advantages of such pursuits.
First and foremost, music has been heavily studied throughout recent years, and therefore irrefutably affiliated with psychological and physiological benefits. According to Incadence (a music therapy and technology firm), four main chemicals are affected as you listen to music: endorphins, cortisol, dopamine and immunoglobulin. I touched on endorphins – in addition to dopamine – in my previous edition which uncovered some hard truths around mental health; however, these are mood-enhancing chemicals that act as pain and stress relievers that your nervous system produces when encountering these unwanted feelings. Our brains use the same pathways to process pain as they do with music, therefore, listening to music distracts us from any potential pain we may be experiencing since endorphins are plentiful when indulging in a jamming session, and pain and music are unable to be processed simultaneously due to their shared pathways. Another frequently discussed hormone is cortisol, which is commonly associated with stress and anxiety, as it is linked with the stress response. Due to the fact that music can induce relaxation, levels of cortisol are lowered and, by extension, stress and anxiety are eased as well. Moreover, immunoglobulins, which are also known as antibodies, have an increased output when listening to music, subsequently improving our immune system and making us less susceptible to illness as it is easier to fight off pathogens.
Furthermore, an extremely interesting phenomenon regarding music and its effect on the brain is what occurs in dementia patients. Dementia inhibits many processes that people without the degenerative disease are effortlessly capable of, including cognition, memory, speech, attention and concentration, so as a consequence of that, music can be profoundly beneficial to patients with any type of dementia. According to Dementia UK, listening or engaging with music (whether that be singing, dancing, or even playing instruments) can trigger an influx of memories if the song has any significant connections with one’s past, help the patient to maintain relationships with others, in addition to encouraging emotional expression, physical activity, and social interaction. However, for music therapy to be successful, the music has to be something familiar to the patient and something that they enjoy, as they are more likely to react positively to a recognisable piece of music.
Finally, on the subject of playing instruments, it has been proven that with each practice session you complete with your instrument, you promote neuroplasticity. In simplest terms, neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to establish new connections and pathways throughout your life as you persist with an activity and neurons continue to fire together; this establishes these connections that are seen across each and every part of the brain when playing an instrument. This is very unique to music, since several areas of the brain need to collaborate to be able to: read and interpret pitches and rhythm, process the sound, integrate all of the incoming sensory information, as well as blocking out irrelevant distractions to ensure that you remember what you have just learned to play. Therefore, learning how to play an instrument drastically increases cognitive abilities, as studies have shown that musicians tend to outperform non-musicians on cognitive tests, regardless of whether the practice is short-term or long-term.
In conclusion, music has an insurmountable number of invaluable advantages that can be experienced universally if you are willing to take the plunge. It doesn’t matter if you can play a plethora of instruments or only know how to sway along to your favourite songs; these indisputable neurological upsides will still show themselves with every new piece you listen to. Learning to sing, dance or play a new instrument is a brilliant pastime, though, and I doubt I need to tell you why, so you should attempt to partake in at least one of these activities, and don’t knock it until you try it. So, until next time, stay happy, healthy, and don’t forget to revisit to read the next edition of Let’s Get Brainy!
Music Therapy and the Brain – https://www.incadence.org/post/the-science-behind-the-sound-music-therapy-and-our-brains
Music and Dementia – https://www.dementiauk.org/get-support/living-with-dementia/music/#benefits
The Benefits of Playing Music – https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/your-brain-will-thank-you-for-being-a-musician/