by Ed Maguire
Want to improve your memory? Sleep better? Improve your visual and verbal skills? Improve your mood and reduce depression? Exercise better and have more energy? What if you could gain these benefits at no cost to you? Music is the answer – the benefits come from listening, and particularly from learning to sing or play and instrument. There’s a reason why we use music in rituals – in religious ceremonies, chanting and mediation. Athletes use music to get themselves pumped up (look at Michael Phelps’ pre-race rituals for example).
The benefits of music are multi-faceted, and there’s a growing body of scientific evidence exploring the how listening and playing music benefit mind and body. I’ve been a musician most of my life, growing up in a household full of music. I picked up violin and piano from the time I was 7 years old, and the skills and experiences from listening and playing – both for fun and professionally. There’s nothing quite like the high one experiences when playing music – it’s a sensation of getting “in the zone” – a state of heightened awareness, where you feel like you’re floating.
It's great for your mood. Neuroscientists have found that listening to music improves positive emotions through stimulating hits of dopamine to the reward centers of our brain, making listeners feel good or elated. Listening to music impacts almost every brain center, suggesting there are widespread unexplored effects and potential uses for music.
Music helps with language learning. A 2013 study of adults learning a foreign language (Hungarian) found evidence that singing can facilitate short-term phrase learning in an unfamiliar language. Sixty adult participants were assigned to one of three “listen-and-repeat” conditions: speaking, rhythmic speaking, or singing. Participants in the singing group showed the best recall on a collection of Hungarian language tests after a 15-min learning
Music can preserve your brain power. A recent study found that in people over the age of 65, 4 or 5 months of playing a musical instrument for an hour a week resulted in changes in parts of the brain that control hearing, memory and the part that controls the hands. The effects are long-lasting too: adults aged 65-80 performed better on tests of word recall, nonverbal memory, and cognitive flexibility the more years they had spent playing an instrument.
There’s growing evidence that music helps with memory. In a 2008 experiment, stroke patients in rehab were assigned to listen to music, audiobooks or nothing in addition to regular care. Based on follow-up testing on mood, quality of life and several cognitive measures a week, 3 months and 6 months post stroke, those in the music group improved significantly more on verbal memory and focused attention than those in the other groups, and they were less depressed and confused.
Musical training improves verbal skills in kids. A 2008 study found that children who received at least three years of instrumental music training outperformed counterparts on two outcomes closely related to music (auditory discrimination abilities and fine motor skills) and on two outcomes distantly related to music (vocabulary and nonverbal reasoning skills).
Music is good for the heart. Studies of adult choir singers singing the same piece of music found they synced breathing and heart rates which produced a group-wide calming effect. A 2015 study of heart patients in India found that listening to calm music benefited the patients in multiple ways. The study found that music-listening produces significant decreases in the blood pressure and heart rate of coronary patients, music-listening reduces stress, anxiety, and depression, enhances life satisfaction, optimism, and hope, and makes life more meaningful in both coronary patients and healthy controls. Notably, the benefits - decrease in blood pressure and heart rate were more intense in coronary patients than healthy controls.
Music helps to control pain. There are a number of studies that show the beneficial impact of listening to music for patients dealing with chronic pain. A 2013 study of 60 patient diagnosed with fibromyalgia — a disease characterized by severe musculoskeletal pain found that patients were randomly assigned to listen to music once a day over a four-week period experienced significant pain reduction and fewer depressive symptoms. A recent study of patients undergoing spine surgery found that patients that listened to music before and after surgery experienced less pain than those that didn’t.
Music can improve the immune system. An intriguing development from a Wilkes University research study found that music affects levels of IgA, which is a ley antibody for the immune system to defend against disease. The study measured undergraduate students’ salivary IgA levels measured before and after 30 minutes of exposure to either listening to a tone click, radio broadcast, soothing music or silence. The students exposed to music had significantly greater increases in IgA than any of the others.
Music is great for exercise. Why do you think aerobics and Zumba classes blast up-tempo music. Listening to fast paced music can help improve your performance when you are running or biking, especially if you listen to “pump-up” music to improve your motivation beforehand. Listening to music also can increase endurance in a demanding workout. This works through distraction – when concentrating on favorite music, it's easy to run an extra mile without realizing it.
Lastly, listening to calm music can help the body recover faster by enhancing a relaxation effect post workout.
A key point is that it really doesn’t matter what style you want to listen to – whatever genre works for you is good. Certain styles like classical music, have been proven effective to enhance learning or for relaxation, but any style that connects with you can create benefits. If you really want to get maximum benefits, pick up that instrument you played in school and give it a whirl. If you’re a beginner don’t be intimidated. You can get a starter guitar for around $100 and start taking lessons off YouTube. It’s the process of learning music as a new language that spurs new connections in your brain and fires up your pleasure centers.
Ed Maguire has worked as an equity analyst covering the technology sector since 1999 for a variety of firms including CLSA Americas, Merrill Lynch and CIBC. Previously he led sales for independent music distributor Twinbrook Music while working as professional musician performing on bass, violin and keyboards, composing, arranging and producing a variety of styles of music. Ed holds a B.A. in Music from Columbia and an M.B.A. from Rutgers in Finance and Management Information Systems. He lives in Millburn, NJ with his wife Lily, their two kids and the dog Spock.