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7 Ways Music Affects Your Brain

Posted 12/12/2017 by UHBlog

Music is only one tool in achieving and maintaining wellness. Talk to us about other ways to stay mentally and physically fit.

Man in papasan chair listening to portable music device with headphones

It’s been said that music can “soothe the savage breast”, but it does so much more than tame us when we’re angry. Listening to music, singing or playing an instrument can lift our spirits, motivate us, increase our focus, and play a part in the treatment of a variety of medical conditions.

“Music stimulates certain neurochemicals and hormones in the brain and body that promote feelings of pleasure, joy, serenity or excitement,” says vascular neurologist Michael DeGeorgia, MD. “Basically, music activates the meso-limbic system, one of the oldest and most primitive pathways deep in the brain. This system is important for emotion. What happens is, a specific area called the nucleus accumbens releases a chemical called dopamine and that makes us feel good.”

It may be especially helpful to turn to music at this time of year, particularly if the holidays or often-gloomy Cleveland winter magnify feelings of loneliness or depression. And if you’re already feeling jolly, it’s healthier to jam to your favorite Rolling Stones tune than to reach for a cocktail.

Dr. DeGeorgia says music can affect your brain by:

  1. Elevating mood. Have you ever been to a dull party, when suddenly the deejay plays a rousing Motown tune? Instantly, guests are singing, dancing and smiling. That’s the brain releasing dopamine in response to hearing an upbeat song.
    “If you listen to Christmas music, it generally has a positive effect on mood, but people have different emotional reactions to different songs,” says Dr. DeGeorgia, who plays drums in a band called The Codes. “You should crank up any music you associate with positive feelings.”
  2. Soothing sorrow. Listening to a sad song tricks the brain into releasing the consoling hormone prolactin.
    “The minor key chords release the hormone to soothe us when we’re sad,” Dr. DeGeorgia says.
  3. Appealing to a need for predictability. Research reveals the brain releases dopamine when we can foretell a song’s next beat or phrasing.
    “Our brains like when we’re able to predict the way a song will unfold, but not too much,” Dr. DeGeorgia says. “If it’s too predictable, it’s boring; if it’s too crazy, it makes us uncomfortable. That’s why we like Mozart or the Beatles. (The music) threads the needle of being a little innovative and interesting, then goes back to a safety zone. It’s also why people don’t like so-called modern classical music (atonal). It makes them feel ungrounded.”
  4. Evoking emotions, memories and thoughts. “If you play a song for a dog, he doesn’t care,” Dr. DeGeorgia says. “It’s just a bunch of sound.”
    But hearing particular songs may transport us to earlier periods of our lives – for better or worse. It may be the record that was playing the first time you kissed a girl, but it could also be a hymn someone sang at your grandfather’s funeral when you were a child.
  5. Bringing us back to Earth. We all fly off the handle from time to time, but music can have a calming effect.
    “Soothing phrases and orchestral pieces can reduce your heartrate and blood pressure,” Dr. DeGeorgia says. “That’s driven by dopamine and other hormones.”
  6. Promoting movement. Research reveals musicians are generally healthier than non-musicians because their neocortex is more activated from the presence of music in their lives. That’s because the auditory and movement cortices are linked, meaning upbeat and predictable music makes us want to shake, rattle and roll. Doctors and therapists use the power of music to help rehabilitate stroke and Parkinson’s patients.
    “Parkinson’s patients don’t have enough dopamine, so their timing mechanisms are off and they have trouble walking,” Dr. DeGeorgia explains. “If you play music, they can adjust their gait to the beat of the song and their gait fluidity will improve.”
    The same principle applies to exercise. Dr. DeGeorgia recommends using an app that relies on rhythmic auditory stimulation. It identifies a song to match the frequency of your stride, so you can run faster, longer or stronger.
  7. Supporting dementia patients. Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, learned that listening to beloved songs from a dementia patient’s past may ease depression and agitation. Likewise, some patients who can no longer speak are able to sing. And some individuals with dementia, who may be unable to perform other tasks, maintain the ability to play an instrument and even learn new pieces.

Michael DeGeorgia, MD is the director of the Neurocritical Care Center and Center for Music and Medicine at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. You can request an appointment with Dr. DeGeorgia or any other doctor online.

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