If you want to work out your body, a trip to the gym is the perfect solution. But, if you want to exercise your brain, it’s time to crank up the tunes and listen to some music.
Listening to music involves much more than opening an app and selecting a song. A stereo system or speaker sends out vibrations that travel through the air to reach our ears, where they engage with the eardrum and are transmitted into electrical signals. These signals pass through the auditory nerve and into the brainstem, where our brains make sense of chords, harmonies and rhythms in order to perceive the sound waves as melodies.
According to a Johns Hopkins Medicine article, “music is structural, mathematical and architectural. It’s based on relationships between one note and the next. You may not be aware of it, but your brain has to do a lot of computing to make sense of it.”
Music activates nearly all of the brain’s various networks. Because of this, the act of listening to a song strengthens connections between many different parts of the brain, including areas responsible for emotion, memory, learning, well-being, cognitive functioning and movement.
A recent survey on music and brain health conducted by the American Association of Retired Persons revealed that active musical engagement was associated with higher rates of happiness and advanced cognitive functioning. Additionally, among those who reported frequent exposure to music as a child, 68% rated their ability to learn new things as “excellent” or “very good,” compared to 50% among those who were not exposed to music early on.
So, what enables music to be so influential on our minds? When you listen to a melody, cortisol levels — a stress hormone — begin to drop. You also experience a boost of dopamine, which is a reward hormone that can help elevate your mood. The main area of the brain responsible for processing music is called the amygdala, which stores memories of events and emotions, making it the center of our mood and mental state. By activating a positive response in the amygdala, listening to upbeat music can improve your mood and help you achieve a significantly healthier mental and emotional balance. With anxiety affecting around 40 million adults in the United States, music should be considered a powerful complement to psychological medical treatments.
Music can benefit your physical health, too. Research discussed by Shonna Waters, Ph.D., found that listening to relaxing music can help slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure, promoting a healthy heart by enabling blood to flow more freely. Based on this evidence, music therapy could be used to increase the efficacy of blood pressure medication.
Due to music’s relaxing capabilities, the incorporation of music into your bedtime routine can help you fall asleep, aid you in managing insomnia and provide a distracting stimulus for your brain that eases pain. With stressful lives becoming increasingly normalized, our nervous systems could use a little help from music in order to release more reward and relaxation hormones.
Depending on what you need at a given time, motivational rap music can lift your spirits when you feel down, metal music can boost self-confidence before a presentation and classical music can help you relax after a long day of work. No matter what the genre, all kinds of music are sure to activate your brain and boost your cognitive state.