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Does listening to music help your mental health?

Does listening to and playing classical music benefit the brain? Though much is still unknown, James Goodwin says there is plenty of evidence to suggest a strong connection between music and mental health

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Music is a key part of the balance of the mind and may be one of the greatest healing factors for our stressed-out brains and minds. But before we look at mental wellbeing, and moreover the health of our brain and the part that music may play, we must look at the evolutionary evidence which places music centrally in the development of our human brain.

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Why do humans respond emotionally to music and why do we enjoy it?

Some 40,000 years ago, across the frozen landscape of central Europe, hunting parties of early (‘Cro-Magnon’) humans relentlessly pursued their prey – mobile herds of deer and wild boar. Those hunters faced formidable challenges. Emigrating out of the Middle East, they encountered brutal winters and the hard going of huge, endless forests. But these early humans brought with them their technologies and their inventiveness which, against the odds, quickly established their presence. And they also brought music.

In 2009, in a remote cave in south-west Germany, buried in a Palaeolithic midden heap, scientists discovered the oldest known musical instruments – four flutes, ingeniously made to generate tonal differences. One, made of a vulture wing bone, is about a foot long. For deeper tone, others were made from the ivory of mammoth tusks. These early musicians clearly had leisure time not only to play and create cave art but to make instruments. Scientists have little doubt that music is so basic to human nature that it goes back to our earliest days as a species. A virtuous cycle involving diet, culture, technology, social relationships and genes led to the modern human brain coming into existence by about 200,000 years ago. And the rest is history – music became embedded in our brains.

From the earliest choral music in ancient Egypt to the Classical and Romantic symphonies of the 18th and 19th centuries, we see in all cultures and eras the importance of music. Greek philosophers contemplated the healing effects of music – the art of the Muses (including Calliope, above left), the nine daughters of Zeus, king of the gods, and Mnemosyne, Titan goddess of memory. We need little investigation to tell us that music is enjoyed by people of all ages around the world. In the words of Longfellow, ‘Music is the universal language of mankind.’

We don’t need to be scientists to know that music engages us physically and emotionally. The right song might prompt us to tap our toes or snap our fingers. It might inspire us to hum or sing or get up and dance. And the profoundest symphony can deeply inspire us. Music can spark memories from many years in the past – bringing back sights, smells and feelings from when we first heard the song that is now radiating throughout the room.

What has science showed us about music’s potential for brain health?

First, we must define it. Over 1.5 million years, evolution has contrived three vital brain functions to work together seamlessly: executive function, or our ability to think and reason; social cognition, which enables us to interact successfully with others; and emotion regulation, through which we generate our sense of well-being.

As a member of the expert music group convened in 2020 by the Global Council for Brain Health, among the many issues discussed I was struck particularly by two of them. The first was that music is unique in simultaneously engaging more areas of the brain than any other activity of daily life. The regions include those parts of the brain involved in hearing and listening, movement, attention, language, emotion, memory and thinking skills and, uniquely, all four lobes of the cerebral hemispheres and the brain stem. Music not only engages multiple parts of the brain but helps them work together. Playing and listening, the members concluded, is indisputably a powerful way to stimulate your brain and gives the brain a total workout.

Secondly, the neuroscientists in the meeting repeatedly said that they weren’t able to answer with certainty the many claims that are made about music and the brain because of the absence of a critical mass of scientific research. (This absence was due in a large part to the low priority given to the science of music by the research funding bodies. This is a grave disadvantage – it both limits the rightful claims that can be made about the benefits of music, particularly high-order classical work, and deprives us of the opportunity to make recommendations on truly beneficial practical measures for our brain health.) But there are many things we can say with certainty.

Is music important in helping mental wellbeing?

Yes, music is important in promoting mental wellbeing, a keystone of brain health requiring as it does the balancing of powerful negative and positive emotions. In general, the positive effect of music is a result of its impact on mood and arousal, and the listener’s enjoyment. By mood, we mean long-lasting emotions. By arousal, we mean the level of physiological activation – the key to regulating consciousness, attention, alertness and information processing. The emotional impact of music seems to be determined by its tempo and the mode (key). Fast tempo and major mode music tend to evoke a positive/happy mood and higher arousal levels, whereas slow tempo and minor mode music evoke a more negative/sad mood and lower arousal levels.

We need no better example of the uplifting effects of music than Mstislav Rostropovich’s cello recital as the Berlin Wall came crashing down in 1989. Enhanced mood and arousal levels plus listener enjoyment all lead indirectly to improved cognitive function, particularly memory and learning. Interestingly, background music appears to have a different effect than listening directly to music – the so-called the ‘Mozart Effect’.

What is The Mozart Effect and does Mozart actually make you smarter?

The Mozart Effect is an apparent improvement in scores on IQ tests found in students who listened to classical music compared to other conditions, such as repetitive music, silence or relaxation. But the effect is modest and temporary. In a review of 16 such studies, it amounted to about two IQ points. Learning to play an instrument, however, has been determined by psychologists to be a ‘cognitively stimulating activity’ – that is, it helps to maintain our thinking skills and translates into better function in everyday life, something psychologists call ‘far transfer’. But such transfer is completely dependent on the extent to which the learning process challenges the brain.

There is also evidence that playing and listening to music improves our cognitive reserve – our capacity to deal with the adverse events of life. Numerous studies, many involving large data sets (for example, a study in 2015 analysing 3.4 million health records), have shown the pernicious effects of both social isolation and chronic loneliness. Both are associated with an increased risk of mortality, and loneliness in particular is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day or drinking a bottle of gin per day. (I would recommend neither!) Singing or dancing together is a good way to increase social connections with other people and reduce loneliness, which is good for brain health, reducing the risk of cognitive decline.

Ice tea drinks at Inyoni safari location, cape town, south africa, Models: Henryk Boltze (Male, German), Jordan Pieters (Female, South African).

Why is dancing good for your brain health?

Dancing also provides an indirect way in which music leads to better brain health. In scientific studies, dancers themselves report multiple cognitive benefits of their activity. Moreover, an astonishing study in 2003 at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine showed that of many different types of physical activities, only dancing was associated with a reduced risk of dementia. Another study, this time in Germany, gave us a clue as to how: dancing was associated with increased hippocampal volume (the hippocampus being a centre of memory and learning) and with the production of a brain protein, BDNF, which stimulates the growth of new brain cells.

Does music help stave off dementia?

So, the $64,000 question. If, say, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and guitarist Sharon Isbin live to be 100, will their musical training help them fend off the depredations of dementia? An overall review of the evidence makes clear that music is very powerful in improving mental health and well-being. But a great deal of work is needed to understand fully some fundamental issues, such as whether music promotes memory and thinking skills as we age and whether listening to or performing music protects the brain against cognitive decline. For example, we know that playing a musical instrument uses many different cognitive skills, such as attention and memory, but we don’t know whether continually exercising those skills maintains them in later age. There is also some evidence that playing an instrument throughout life is associated with a lower risk of dementia, but we don’t know whether performing music actually causes the brain to be more resilient to disease. And we don’t know whether the evidence that resilience observed in the brains of musicians is only true for people playing since childhood, or whether it applies equally to musicians who begin as adults.

That may sound as a fairly complete litany of ‘don’t knows’, but I am optimistic about the future. Positively, we know that listening to music stimulates many parts of the brain; that music promotes brain connectivity and has much therapeutic value for healthy ageing, for pathologies such as stroke, Parkinson’s and dementia, and for reducing stress and promoting wellbeing. The outstanding research questions need to be answered to provide proof of what we know intuitively about the importance and relevance of music in all aspects of life. Personally, I’m convinced that the power of music to restore, rejuvenate and regenerate the brain will become our new received wisdom.

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Professor James Goodwin recently released Supercharge Your Brain: How to Maintain a Healthy Brain.