We all know the therapeutic benefits of listening to music, whether it’s to boost us into a good mood, comfort us when we are sad or help us to release anger or frustration. The strong bond between music, culture and human emotion goes back to our earliest ancestors and still has an effect on all minds, young and old, today. Why is it that even the simplest rhythm and melody can have such a powerful impact?
What’s going on in our brain
When we listen to music, play a musical instrument or compose it, we activate and engage multiple areas across both halves of the brain. In the process of appreciating a song, we simultaneously work our memory centres to recall the previous places and occasions in which we have enjoyed it, and we also rely on our language centres to remember lyrics.
Naturally, playing an instrument – or even tapping along to the beat – is even more engaging. Planning the next notes requires an effort from the frontal lobe, and coordinating both hands challenges your motor control, sense of touch and auditory processing. Essentially, it’s one of the best possible workouts for your mind and can actually increase your capacity to learn.
How music benefits us
1. Protects our mind from disease – In the same way that regular exercise protects our body from ailments, a musical ‘workout’ for our mind can keep it healthier. Studies have shown that music can help patients recover from a stroke, manage conditions like anxiety and depression, and can even slow down the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
2. Improves our listening ability – Taking the time to really appreciate a piece of music and listen for the different parts of a composition can help our ability to listen in everyday life. Musicians have been shown to outperform non-musicians when it comes to picking out specific voices in a noisy room, and have a better feeling for expression and rhythm.
3. Promotes meditation – Being able to focus our mind to tune out the world is valuable for reducing stress levels and maintaining mental well-being. Meditation is perfect for doing this, but concentrating on a piece of music can be just as effective. In fact, learning an instrument can be so beneficial in this respect that it can used as therapy for ADHD.
4. Allows us to meet new people – Healthy relationships are often linked to a healthy life. Using music as an icebreaker in conversation or even going out to meet new people by playing in an orchestra, band or choir can pave the way to making meaningful friendships.
5. Gives us a sense of achievement – The challenge of learning a new skill can be daunting, but the commitment to learning a new instrument is incredibly fulfilling. If you stick to a routine and make it a habit to practice, you’ll be rewarded with steady progress. The best part? You can start learning at any age and continue indefinitely – you’ll never learn ‘everything’. Once you get the hang of one instrument, you will even be able to transfer that knowledge to something different.
6. Boosts our memory – Do you struggle with forgetfulness? Learning to play an instrument boosts your spatial reasoning, verbal memory and literacy abilities, as well as strengthening synapse connections across the brain.
How can you get started?
Did you ever play an instrument as a child? Picking up something that doesn’t feel completely unfamiliar can be a reassuring place to start. Alternatively, you might have always wished you could play a particular instrument and never had the chance – now could be your chance to fulfil a life-long dream! If you want to try out a few different things before committing, head to your local music shop. Most staff will be thrilled to share their instruments with you, and share any tips or guidance they might have.
Don’t forget that there are other ways of making music. Learning the basics of becoming a DJ might be more up your street, or even using software like Garageband to compose your own tracks. Any type of music consumption or production is a boost for your brain, but the most important thing is that you’re passionate about doing it.
Dennis Relojo is the founder of Psychreg and is also the Editor-in-Chief of Psychreg Journal of Psychology. Aside from PJP, he sits on the editorial boards of peer-reviewed journals, and is a Commissioning Editor for the International Society of Critical Health Psychology. A Graduate Member of the British Psychological Society, Dennis holds a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Hertfordshire. His research interest lies in the intersection of psychology and blogging. You can connect with him through Twitter @DennisRelojo and his website.