The Magic of Music and the Brain

Research shows that music may be a vital tool for a healthy mind

Turn up the radio. Sing a song. Lace up your dancing shoes or pick up a guitar. Making and enjoying music can stimulate your brain, trigger memories and emotions, connect you with other people and enrich your life, according to a report from AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH).

“Music has powerful potential to improve your mental well-being and your brain health,” says Sarah Lenz Lock, executive director of the council and senior vice president for policy at AARP.

Music engages multiple parts of the brain — including those involved in memory, thinking skills, movement, attention, language and emotion — and helps them work together, according to the report, which is based on a review of scientific literature by independent experts. But you don’t have to be a scientist to recognize music’s most potent effects, from moving our bodies to unearthing memories and feelings, says council member Jacobo Mintzer, M.D., a professor of health studies at the Medical University of South Carolina.

“When we listen to a tune that has a positive emotional context for us, it automatically brings up memories associated with it,” he says. A song from your teenage years might remind you of your first slow dance, while another song might remind you of old friends. Even people with dementia respond to music from their past, the report says.

“What we don’t know is if the music will stimulate memories not related to the music,” Mintzer says. “Will it also help me remember the list of what I need to get at the grocery store?”

Some therapeutic uses of music are already supported by science. Specialized music treatments can help people with Parkinson’s disease walk better and may help stroke survivors regain speech, the report notes. Music therapy can improve mood and quality of life and may reduce agitation in people with dementia. Research on singing groups for those with dementia and their caregivers is showing promising results. And sharing familiar music is a way for caregivers to connect with those suffering from memory loss, the report says.

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Among the panel’s recommendations:

  • Get up and dance. Dancing may be even better for your brain than other forms of exercise, at least one study suggests. If you dance with a partner, you get the added benefit of social connection and coordinating your moves with another person, Mintzer says: “You are really getting a full brain workout.”
  • Listen to music when you exercise. You will get a mental uplift and extra motivation to keep moving your body.
  • Learn to play a musical instrument or take up singing, even if you’ve never done it before. You’ll gain a sense of mastery and boost your self-esteem, while helping your brain make new connections. (Playing an instrument throughout your life might lower your risk of dementia, some research suggests, but as the report notes, “we don’t know whether performing music actually causes the brain to be more resilient to the disease.”)
  • Consider performing music in public, with a group. You will challenge yourself and create bonds with your fellow players or singers.
  • Enjoy familiar music that comforts you and evokes positive memories and associations. But also listen to new music and let unfamiliar melodies stimulate your brain.
  • Don’t miss out on the joys of music because of a hearing problem. If you are having trouble hearing, get it checked out.

For many Americans, music is a joyful activity. An AARP survey of 3,185 U.S. adults finds that two-thirds engage in focused music listening, 60 percent sing (mostly alone), 41 percent dance and 13 percent play an instrument (and nearly half have played one at some point in their lives). Those who engage in music report better mental well-being and cognitive functioning and lower levels of depression and anxiety, the survey finds. Exactly how music works its magic and whether it can improve memory and thinking skills as we age remain open questions, the report says. But if you want to enhance brain health, engaging in musical activities is “very low risk, very much fun,” Lock says. —Kim Painter