Music and the Brain

Over the years I have received multiple questions regarding music, what impact does it have on the brain? Are certain forms of music healthier than others? Should parents worry about what music their children listen to? Is it the music style or lyrics that are the problem?

A great review, by Sarkamo et al., is found in Brain A Journal of Neurology (January 2008, Vol 131;3 p 866-876). Listening to music is a complex brain process that increases activity throughout the brain.

Music can reduce anxiety, depression and reduce pain perception. It may also enhance attention, learning, communication and memory, both in healthy subjects and in clinical conditions, such as dyslexia, autism, schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, coronary artery disease and dementia.

Post stroke patients who listened to daily music, when compared to those who listened to audio books and those who listened to neither, “showed that recovery in the domains of verbal memory and focused attention improved significantly more in the music group than in the language and control groups. The music group also experienced less depressed and confused mood than the control group.”

Brain scans of children’s brains before and after musical training demonstrate structural brain changes for children who received music lessons. A recent study matched musically untrained 6-year-olds for socioeconomic background and gender and then randomized them into two groups. One group got keyboard lessons for 15 months, the other group didn’t. MRI scans documented the part of the brain associated with hearing and manual dexterity (auditory and motor cortex) grew larger in those who had lessons. And these children did better in tasks involving manual dexterity and their ability to differentiate melodies. But the two groups did not show differences in unrelated skills such as mathematical ability.

Such research has led world-renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks to state,

I said earlier that there’s no one music center. And one of the things which is now apparent from brain imaging is that music can involve many different parts of the brain, special parts for the response to pitch, and to frequency, and to timbre, and to rhythm, and to melodic contour, and to harmonic and everything else. In fact you may find that much more of the brain is involved in the perception and the response to music than to language or anything else. One aspect of this is that if one does brain imaging, you can often distinguish the brains of musicians from the brains of non musicians because certain parts of the brain may become so enlarged in response to music that you can see the changes with the naked eye. You can’t say that’s the brain of a mathematician or a visual artist. You may be able to say I think that’s the brain of a musician.

Clearly music has profound impact upon our brains and thus our mental and physical health. So the obvious question, does the type of music one listens to really matter? Or is all music equally beneficial?

Research by Wingwood et al., published in the American Journal of Public Health(March 2003, Vol 93, No. 3 | 437-439), documented that, adolescents who were exposed to rap music videos were 3 times more likely to have hit a teacher; more than 2.5 times as likely to have been arrested; 2 times as likely to have had multiple sexual partners; and more than 1.5 times as likely to have acquired a new sexually transmitted disease, used drugs, and used alcohol over the 12-month follow-up period.

Previous research by Robinson, Chen, and Killen, published in Pediatrics (Jun 4, 1998) documented that watching pop music videos increased the risk of adolescent alcohol consumption by 31%.

In 2006 Brown et al. published in Pediatrics (Vol. 117 No. 4 April 2006, pp. 1018-1027), that exposure to sexual content in music increases sexual behavior in adolescents. In fact white adolescents age 12-14 who had the highest intake of music with sexual content, were 2.2 times more likely to have had sex within the next two years as those adolescents of the same age who had the lowest intake of music containing sexual content.

Clearly music can affect us, some music promotes positive effects while other music is damaging. The question of course is, how does one know what music is beneficial, what is harmful and what is neutral in its effect?

There is a Biblical principle that seems to get it exactly right, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things” (Philippians 4:8).

First examine the lyrics – if the lyrics are violent, sexual, vulgar, nihilistic, unkind, cruel, defamatory, or otherwise ugly then I would recommend against such music. Both science and scripture warn of the damaging consequences to such content.

Second examine the emotional reaction. Does it relax, calm, unwind, inspire, encourage, or instead does the music cause tension, frustration, anxiety, stress or even discomfort?

Third examine the impact the music has on attitude, behavior, function and performance of your children. Any music which is consistently associated with negative attitudes, rebelliousness, hostility, irritability, or reduction in healthy function should be carefully scrutinized and removed from the auditory diet of the child if found to be damaging.

Regarding music style, volume is key – any volume which damages auditory neurons is unhealthy and unreasonable, regardless of style of music and should be avoided. Certain music genres are more consistently associated with damaging volumes and greater caution should be exercised with such music.

In summary, music has profound impact upon the human brain with subsequent affect on mental, physical and spiritual health. Music which has demonstrated beneficial effects include classical, baroque, religious, inspiration, spiritual, and many forms of modern music which connote healthy messages. Whereas, rap, heavy metal, and other forms of modern music which connote unhealthy messages, values or morals or which cause stress, anxiety, tension or irritibility  have demonstrated harmful effects. As always, while we are all free to choose which music we prefer, not all music is equally healthy – so choose wisely!