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Your Brain on Music

by Kate Kunkel

Throughout history and across cultures, music has played an important part in our lives, but why? Is it just cultural or societal? Or is there something in our physical bodies, perhaps our brains, that makes music so important to us?

There is certainly no lack of research that has been done to explore this question. But for the purposes of improving our brain function and our health, I thought I would share some interesting tidbits that might help YOU use music in a deliberate and productive way.

Music can Boost your Brain

Music is much more than a diversion or a pleasant accompaniment to our lives. By listening mindfully, you can use music to enhance your ability to learn and to improve your health now, while protecting your brain for the future. Listening to music regularly can stimulate your whole brain, and listening to enjoyable music not only improves brain function… It can often drive you to take action when you need to!

Music also improves brain function because it can activate the array of neurons across the corpus collosum, which is that band of nerve fibers joining the two hemispheres of the brain. Music helps enhance the connection between the hemispheres, improving a whole range of cognitive functions including problem solving and planning.

Music for Memory

If you want to improve memory, the best benefits come from listening to complicated music such as classical music. In one interesting study, Bulgarian psychologist George Lozanov found that background Baroque instrumental music by George Frederic Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach greatly increased learning and memory retention while learning a foreign language.

It seems this works because simultaneous activation of the left and right brain maximizes learning and retention of information. The information (the new language) being studied activates the left brain, while the music activates the right brain. 

What music helps most? Anything with a 60-beat-per-minute pattern activates both sides of the brain in unison. When I listen to such music, I have to keep the volume low because, as a musician, I start analyzing the music. But this trick really helped me when I was studying for my nutritionist course.

Music Enhances Neuroplasticity

Another benefit of mindfully listening to music is encouraging neuroplasticity. One excellent brain-stimulating exercise is to choose an upbeat classical piece like the “Allegro” from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major. 

While you’re listening to the music, try to follow one part or one instrument. By doing this you’re activating both halves of your brain in a way normally done only by musicians as they play their instrument. 

Music for a Calmer Mind

For calming and help with emotional problems, any music that evokes positive emotions helps increase blood flow to the brain. It has the same effect on the brain as the smell of lavender or chamomile, producing “feel-good” chemicals like dopamine. A 2011 study found that music plays a significant role in causing a good mood. It showed that dopamine levels were 9 percent higher in participants who listened to music they enjoyed.

Music therapy, which is a more structured use of music by trained therapists, is a clinically proven intervention that has been studied in over 3,000 research papers. It works incredibly well to help people suffering from PTSD and other forms of trauma. 

If you have suffered trauma in any form, it is essential to get treatment. While “talk” therapy can certainly help, many studies show that music therapy can be even more powerful than talking.

Dealing with trauma in a healthy way, through meditation, mindfulness, and music therapy, can protect your brain from depression, anxiety, and all the other psychological and physical havoc wreaked by lingering and unresolved stress, which often contributes to the development of dementia. Please find a qualified therapist if you are dealing with these sorts of issues. 

The Music of Memories

There is a fair amount of research showing that dementia patients, even those in advanced stages, respond positively to music that was popular when they were young, or that triggers memories for them. But you don’t have to suffer from this disease to extract great benefit from listening to music that inspires memories. We are emotional beings – we need connections, and one way to bring people together is by listening to music together and sharing memories about what that music meant to us. 

Spending time every week just sitting and listening to music you enjoy – perhaps music of your youth or something from a particularly happy experience – is a wonderful way to remember connections, even if it’s a song that you enjoyed with someone you have lost. 

The benefits are enhanced if you can talk with someone about it and reminisce together. (There’s that powerful social interaction again!) Obviously, you don’t want to play music that exacerbates stress or depression, but exercising a memory through mindful listening can be hugely beneficial to your emotional health and, by extension, to your brain health. 

Your Gut on Music

There is copious research about the effects of music on digestion and our ability to taste food and drink. 

Fast and loud music stimulates release of the stress hormone cortisol, which increases respiration and heart rate, taking energy away from proper digestion. And listening to this kind of music while eating distracts you from the flavors and textures of food, so you just gobble it down and don’t even realize you’re full. 

Slower, quieter music promotes relaxation and slower eating, which means you chew your food more thoroughly and digest it more effectively. This leads to a happier, healthier microbiome. Eating more slowly also gives your stomach time to realize it’s getting nourishment, so you feel full and stop eating – especially important if you are trying to lose weight to save your brain.

Make Music a Priority for a Healthier Brain (and Body)!

There is no time like the present to make music a bigger part of your life to improve your brain. Take time to just listen to music you enjoy. Try not to do anything else but mindfully pay attention to what’s happening in the music, and notice if it inspires memories. 

Boost your brain by learning to play a musical instrument, or sing, or learn ballroom dancing or salsa!

P.S. If you would like to enjoy a truly unique musical experience, consider ordering a personal harp recording.

A Personal Harp Composition for Peace, Healing and Personal Growth

by Kate Kunkel

Reduce stress, improve brain function, and activate your body’s powerful capacity to heal itself. When you take the time to focus on your personal music, and how the tones are affecting your psyche and your physical self, you will be able to use those frequencies to their ultimate purpose. Healing.

brain health, dementia prevention, memory, music, music therapy, trauma