Credit: Free Malaysia Today
Did you know that not only does “music soothe the savage breast”, as William Congreve wrote in his 1697 play “The Mourning Bride”, it is also a powerful ally for health? The practices of listening to music and playing it not only improve our mental wellbeing but also our cognitive abilities.
While preferences vary, music touches us in our hearts – and our brains. This is why listening to and playing music are increasingly recommended by the medical community, starting from a very young age. Studies have shown that music acts as a neurostimulant on babies, especially premature ones.
Swiss researchers at the University Hospital of Geneva have found that music promotes the development of sensory and cognitive functions in newborns. To reach this conclusion, they commissioned composer Andreas Vollenweider to create three melodies to accompany the infants’ phases of waking, awakening and falling asleep.
They found that the neural networks of babies exposed to these compositions developed more efficiently than those of other premature infants.
The impact of music on the cognitive and executive functions of the brain is already well established, especially in children. Recent discoveries show that music modifies the biochemical processes by reinforcing cerebral plasticity. This would explain why it has beneficial effects on the intellectual development of toddlers.
Research conducted by Christina Zhao and Patricia Kuhl at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences confirmed this in 2016. They found, with medical neuroimaging to back it up, that listening to music influences the development of speech learning skills in babies.
“We know that babies learn rapidly from a wide range of experiences, and we think music can be an important experience that may influence their brain development,” Christina Zhao told CBS News at the time.
Engaging the whole brain
This beneficial effect on brain plasticity continues throughout childhood and adult life. For example, playing an instrument allows for speedier increases in one’s IQ.
A team of researchers, led by experts from the Stanford University School of Medicine, studied the cognitive functions of 153 musicians and non-musicians. They found a significant difference in the brain structure of musicians who started playing an instrument at an early age, whether it was the piano, clarinet, trumpet or violin. They showed stronger brain connections than those who started musical training later.
For Anita Collins, a researcher specialising in brain development and music learning, music offers what can be described as exercise for the brain.
“While listening to music engages the brain in some pretty interesting activities, playing it is the brain’s equivalent of a full-body workout,” she explained in a Ted Talk. “Playing a musical instrument engages practically every area of the brain at once, especially the visual, auditory cortex, and motor cortices.
“As with any other workout, disciplined, structured practice in playing music strengthens those brain functions, allowing us to apply that strength to other activities.”
One thing is certain: the more you practise an instrument, the more you benefit from these effects. But listening to music has other bonuses, such as regulating your mood. Cognitive neurosciences assert that music provides a feeling of pleasure by activating the reward circuit in the brain.
This system, set up by natural selection to regulate humans’ desires and emotions, increases the release of dopamine, the “happiness hormone”. It is with this in mind that music is now used as a therapeutic tool in healthcare institutions.
Music therapy has also proven to be effective in treating stress and pain management. An increasing number of music workshops are being offered to help people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and even migraines.
A team of researchers based in France, Germany and the United States conducted an experiment with 20 migraine patients. They suggested that they listen to 20 minutes of music twice a day for three months.
The result: their migraine attacks were drastically reduced. Half of the participants in the study even declared that their migraine attacks had been reduced by half.
And the therapeutic benefits of music don’t stop there: numerous studies indicate that music stimulates almost all forms of memory, even in the elderly.
Hervé Platel, professor of neuropsychology at the University of Caen, France, was one of the first researchers in the 1990s to observe the persistence of musical memory. He discovered that patients with Alzheimer’s disease were able to learn new songs within a few weeks, where their memorisation capabilities were thought to have been significantly diminished.
They were even able to do so at an advanced stage of the disease.
Susan Magsamen, founder of the International Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and co-author of a forthcoming book “Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us”, explains that this surprising phenomenon is due to the fact that music is processed by multiple areas of the brain.
“The hippocampus is the region of the brain that stores short-term memory, which is often the first region to fail for people with dementia. Over time, memories are consolidated and are stored in a distributed manner in the cerebral cortex.
“It’s fascinating that somehow our brains have figured out how to duplicate knowledge, especially information that’s really important,” she told the “Washington Post”.
But can it yet be said that music preserves the brain from ageing? While researchers remain cautious on this question, they are unanimous on one point: listening to music, singing, or playing an instrument has multiple benefits on the overall cognitive functioning of the brain, including at all ages.
All the more reason to encourage learning and playing music from a young age.