Music[k] has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I’ve read, that things inanimate have mov’d,
And, as with living Souls, have been inform’d,
By Magic[k] Numbers and persuasive Sound.

-The Mourning Bride, William Congreve, 1697.

The power of music has been discussed and theorized about for eons.  Whether soothing the most savage of beasts or conveying the language of love, music’s power has long been accepted, but never truly understood.

In 1991, Nils L. Wallin began exploring “biomusicology:” the study of music from a biological standpoint.  Several sections of musical psychology fall under the biomusicology umbrella, none more fascinating than neuromusicology.  Over the last decade and a half, neuromusicology has finally started to produce tangible, often quantifiable results linking music to some of the byproducts we had long assumed to be true.

In this four-part series, we will examine the very real ways that music can help to improve brain function. Part one will discuss the effects that simply listening to music can have on your brain.  Part two will delve into the brain of a musician and the various additional grey matters bridges that are built because of musical training.  Part three of this series will explore musical training in children and how such training can affect their lives as a whole.  The final part of this series will examine the positive results seen while using music to assist with very serious, very debilitating diseases in the elderly.

Listening to Music Can Make You Smarter

OK, perhaps the title feels a bit on-the-nose, but that doesn’t make it any less true. The average Joe listens to roughly 32 hours of music every single week, be it in the car, at the gym, or sitting in his/her cubicle at work.  Recent studies have shown that is more than enough time for music — simply listening to music! — to increase cognitive function while also making you happier, healthier, and more productive.

You’re surely asking, “how is this possible!?”  The easiest explanation is likening it to a runner’s high.  Upon the completion of your workout, or any reached goal for that matter, your body increases the production of dopamine.  Functioning within your pleasure-reward system, dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for motivation and the feel-good state of being.  Listening to music, like completing that rigorous workout, increases dopamine production.  Want an added boost?  Try listening to your playlist on random/shuffle.  The “reward” associated with a more preferred song coming on at random supplies an additional dopamine surge.  This influx surely helps to better your mood, but it’s not the only contributor.  Listening to music also helps to keep your stress hormones in check by limiting the production of cortisol.  With lower cortisol levels, a person is free to feel more hopeful and in control of the situations at hand.

Management 101 will tell you that a happy worker is a productive worker, and nothing could be truer.  Employees, especially those who get to choose their own music, are found to be happier and more productive; but the benefits don’t end there.  It’s been found that background music actually helps to improve accuracy and assists with efficiently while completing repetitive tasks.  In fact, combining both the soothing nature and productivity enhancement from music has helped people, such as surgeons, athletes, etc, perform better in high-pressure situations.  Finally, music has been linked to increased creativity.  Even when listening to music that the subject doesn’t necessarily care for, it’s still stimulating the nerves in the brain and helping to boost creativity.

The benefits of listening to music aren’t solely internal.  Listening to music has actually been proven to make you a better person!  An uptick in prosocial behaviors (actions for the benefit of others, such as empathy and generosity) is a byproduct of listening to music.  It’s no wonder that charity events and fundraising benefits are often centered around some sort of musical act!

The benefits of listening to music are very real and very remarkable.  Think of listening to music like going to the gym…for your brain.

If you think the effects of listening to music are amazing, just wait until next time when we discuss the benefits of learning to play music!