Is There Such A Thing As “Brain Music”?
We Look At How Music Affects The Brain
You’ve all no doubt heard somebody refer to certain types of music as “brain music”. For most of you, it will have been your high school music teacher talking about Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven. Some of you might have heard that jazz is the most mentally stimulating kind of music. Maybe you had a relative who was crazy about Miles Davis; they will no doubt have told you that jazz is the real “brain music”. We’ve even heard people claiming that hip-hop is the best music to listen to if you want to engage your brain.
The exact type of music varies, but we’ve all heard this concept before in one form or another: music has the ability to profoundly change the way the brain works.
Is there any truth in this idea?
Can music really alter your mental state?
If so, how? How can an arrangement of notes – a pattern of air vibration – alter the state of the brain? How can notes of varying pitch possibly change your mood, cognitive performance, or mental health?
Are there really certain types of music that affect the brain more than others? Or does all music have an effect on cognition?
We’re going to take a look at some of the latest scientific literature on music and the brain to try to answer all of these questions. We’ll investigate the mechanisms behind music’s apparent influence on brain function. We’ll look at some studies showing the real-life, tangible benefits of listening to music on cognitive performance, mood, and even emotional health. We will also look at different types of music to see if any genres or forms are better than others for enhancing your brain function.
As always, if you have any questions, suggestions, or you’d like to share your own experiences experimenting with music in this way, let us know in the comments! We love to hear from you guys; one of us will always try to reply within 24 hours.
Can Music Affect The Brain?
Before we look at the distinct ways in which music can influence the brain, we need to establish whether or not it physically can. To put that another way: is there a mechanism through which music can actually influence brain function?
There is an exciting new branch of neuroscience called neuromusicology. This is the study of how the nervous system responds to music.
There has been plenty of work done in this area of the last couple of decades, and the results are pretty conclusive: music directly affects the physical architecture of the brain in distinct and profound ways.
We now know that music doesn’t just influence the brain directly; it influences every single part of the brain at the same time.
Take a look at this paper, published in NeuroImage in 2012. A team of Finnish researchers looked at how music stimulates different areas of the brain. The team exposed a group of participants to a modern tango arrangement (chosen because of its rich structure) and looked at how their brains responded using fMRI scanners.
The results indicated that different areas of the brain are responsible for processing different aspects of music: “While timbral feature processing was associated with activations in cognitive areas of the cerebellum, and sensory and default mode network cerebrocortical areas, musical pulse and tonality processing recruited cortical and subcortical cognitive, motor and emotion-related circuits.”
That is an extremely large portion of the brain that music is activating.
Music does not just activate a specific part of the brain designed to process rhythm or acoustic patterns.
It seems to “light up” the whole brain at once.
To borrow the words used by the researchers, “we revealed the large-scale cognitive, motor and limbic brain circuitry dedicated to acoustic feature processing during listening to a naturalistic stimulus.”
What is particularly interesting about this study is that it showed how music affects areas of the brain associated with wildly different cognitive functions. Parts of the brain associated with movement, emotional control, and creativity are all simultaneously activated when we hear music.
Music seems to cause neuronal activity in multiple different parts of the brain at the same time. But the effect of music on the brain doesn’t stop there. Various clinical trials have found that music can actually trigger the release of certain neurotransmitters.
We were amazed to learn that listening to music, even for a relatively short period of time, causes a significant rise in dopamine levels.
As this article discusses, a study was conducted on 8 participants at McGill University in Toronto. These participants were chosen out of an initial 200 because they responded in a uniform way to music (making it easier to study the effects).
The study found that participants experienced a significant spike in dopamine levels while listening to a crescendo or emotional climax in a piece of music.
This makes intuitive sense given what we know about dopamine. Dopamine is released when we achieve a goal; it is our internal system for rewarding drive and effort. When we’re listening to a piece of music, we are always anticipating the climax of the song. When we experience it, dopamine is released. In a way, it is released to reward our investment of time in listening to the piece.
As the article notes, this could be the first study to ever demonstrate – with irrefutable brain imaging proof – that the achievement of abstract goals has the same dopamine response as the achievement of concrete physical goals (e.g finding food or shelter).
Similarly, music has been found to stimulate the synthesis and release of oxytocin; a major ‘feel-good’ neuropeptide.
A lot of you may be familiar with Oxytocin. It is often called the “love neurotransmitter” (even though it isn’t technically a neurotransmitter) – it is primarily used to bring about feelings of bonding, trust, empathy, and companionship. It is released in enormous quantities during and after childbirth, as well as during sex.
Several studies, such as this one, have found that music stimulates the release of oxytocin. The researchers in the cited study found the following: “listening to music during bed rest after open-heart surgery has some effects on the relaxation system as regards s-oxytocin and subjective relaxations levels. This effect seems to have a causal relation from the psychological (music makes patients relaxed) to the physical (oxytocin release).”
These results actually have profound implications for health and longevity. The same researchers actually suggested that music therapy should be introduced as a standard addition to post-surgery treatment (for cardiovascular patients at least).
If music can release enough oxytocin to improve patient outcomes following cardiovascular surgery, then listening to music must have a pretty incredible effect on the oxytocin levels of healthy people.
Does Music Enhance Cognition?
We’ve now firmly established that music can have a direct, physical, measurable effect on the brain. It seems that listening to music influences brain chemistry, and causes neuronal excitement in multiple different parts of the brain.
But does listening to music have a real, tangible effect on cognitive function?
Does music actually improve people’s mood? Is the effect noticeable?
We think the answer to both of these questions is a resounding YES!
We’re not going to beat around the bush here. Many of you have come to this article looking for some hard scientific proof, so we’re going to jump right into some studies.
There are hundreds of studies looking at music and its relationship to focus, memory, productivity, creativity, and mood. We are only going to cite a handful so as to not get boring or redundant. However, we strongly recommend that you do some further reading on this subject to see just how strong this link seems to be.
Right, let’s get into it.
Listening to Mozart in the background while performing various tasks has been shown to significantly improve spatial processing as well as accuracy of linguistic processing.
Various studies have shown that listening to music dramatically increases productivity, both in a workplace setting and in private. This study looked at work quality and time spent on-task in two groups; one that were given background music, and one where the music was removed.
The results speak for themselves: “Results indicated that state positive affect and quality-of-work were lowest with no music, while time-on-task was longest when music was removed. Narrative responses revealed the value of music listening for positive mood change and enhanced perception on design while working.”
Another study turned up very similar results; music clearly improves work efficiency of repetitive tasks (e.g factory work) as well as the enjoyment of such work.
One fascinating trial seems to show that surgeons work much faster, more accurately, and with fewer mistakes when they have music playing in the background. The different in physiological stress markers, working speed, and accuracy became more pronounced when the surgeons were allowed to choose the music themselves.
These are all absolutely incredible findings. We can actually refine our understanding even further if we focus on people who are exposed to music a great deal: musicians.
Studies on musicians brains, how they work, and what that means for their cognitive function, could fill a library. We don’t need to be exhaustive here though. We’re going to just pick the most interesting studies and let you do further research in the areas that pique your interest.
Without doubt the most interesting study we’ve ever seen regarding the brains of musicians is this one, published in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2013.
Researchers in this study looked at how musical training affected physical brain development. They looked to see if there was a big difference between the brains of children who started musical training before 7 years old and those who started later.
They found the following: “We found that early-trained musicians had greater connectivity in the posterior midbody/isthmus of the corpus callosum and that fractional anisotropy in this region was related to age of onset of training and sensorimotor synchronization performance.”
This is really interesting and exciting for a number of reasons. The corpus callosum is the bundle of nerve fibers that connects the left and right side of the brain. it is the main channel of communication between the two sides. A larger, more developed corpus callosum means better, more efficient communication between the left and right sides of the brain.
Many of you know that the left and right sides of the brain are associated with different cognitive functions. Some researchers today are questioning the old “right side creative, left side logical” dichotomy, and rightly so. But it still seems that the left and right sides of the brain have loosely distinct purposes.
As we discussed in our article on creativity, better communication between the left and right sides of the brain can only lead to more free and abstract thinking, greater creative output, and ultimately more raw brain power.
That musical training can significantly increase corpus callosum white matter is a major discovery with profound implications for cognitive performance.
Several clinical investigations have found similar trends. This study, for example, found that the physical neural changes that happen as a result of early musical training stay with a person into adulthood. This seems to be true regardless of whether or not the person keeps up with musical training.
These changes in physical brain anatomy and architecture have definite, measurable carry-over benefits in how musicians perform in cognitive tasks. Musicians seem to have significantly better working memory than non-musicians, as well as better motor control and spatial awareness.
If you’re interested in enhancing your cognitive performance, then it seems like listening to music more often is a good way to go.
While musicians seem to have significantly better working memory and intra-cerebral communication than non-musicians, just listening to music on a regular basis seems to improve various aspects of cognitive function.
How Does Music Influence Mood?
We’ve looked at how music influences cognitive function.
It is clear that listening to music improves various aspect of mental performance. Working efficiency, quality of output, and working memory all seem to be significantly improved if you simply put some music on in the background!
We’ve also seen how musicians benefit enormously from their musical training: they have better connections between the left and right sides of the brain, and they have better working memories, spatial awareness, and audio processing capacity.
But what about mood?
It seems intuitive that music would improve your mood and help you feel less stressed or anxious. It also seems obvious that music would help you feel more connected with people.
But can we measure this? Can we show that this connection exists?
We can and we have, over and over again. In fact, the relationship between music and mood is better established than the relationship between music and cognitive performance.
One of the main ways in which music influences mood is by changing cortisol levels.
Cortisol is the ‘stress hormone’. It is released by the adrenal gland when you encounter any serious external stressor. Its primary function is to facilitate the “fight or flight” response. It rapidly increases blood sugar, suppresses the immune system (diverting resources elsewhere), and makes you feel wide awake. It is absolutely necessary for a healthy life.
Of course, too much cortisol is a bad thing. Chronically high levels of cortisol cause anxiety, weight gain, muscle loss, and general body tissue degeneration.
Several studies have found that listening to relaxing music can lower cortisol levels significantly. This paper, published in 2013, reports that baseline cortisol levels are reached fastest following a stressor if people are played relaxing music. The sound of rippling water also helps you reach normal cortisol levels following a spike. Participants who were given silent relaxation time following the stressor were the slowest in reaching their baseline cortisol levels.
Modulating cortisol levels is a good way to reduce stress and anxiety; it may actually be the best way. If you’re having a stressful time at work, or at home, listening to some relaxing music might help you a great deal.
Some of you will find behavioral studies much more interesting than neuro-biological ones. Thankfully, there are plenty of those too!
Multiple behavioral studies have found that listening to music can have a positive effect on mood, generosity, empathy, and helpfulness. However, many of these studies have found that particular types of music have a positive effect, while some kinds of music can actually be counter-productive.
In this trial, first published in Environment & Behavior, participants were either played uplifting or irritating music, and then asked to help in two ways – one low cost (signing a petition) and one high cost (handing out leaflets).
While most participants chose to help in the low cost way, those people played the uplifting music were much more likely to help in the high-cost way; by handing out leaflets.
Music seems to reliably make people more helpful, generous, and compliant. This backs up our findings about the relationship between music and cortisol, oxytocin, and dopamine. The more upbeat, relaxing music we listen to, the lower our stress levels seem to get, and the more likely we are to be empathetic.
If you struggle with low mood, empathy, or stress, then listening to relaxing or upbeat music is probably a good idea. Give it a try – what have you got to lose?! You can start with some of the sample pieces we’ve listed below.
Different Types Of Music & Their Effects
We’ve established that music can have an overwhelmingly positive effect on your brain.
It seems to be able to affect everything; mood, memory, productivity, empathy, generosity, anxiety, and even physical brain development (in the case of musical training at least).
Some studies suggest that music may facilitate healing. With what we know about music’s effect on cortisol levels, this makes perfect physiological sense.
But in the last section, we saw that ‘irritating’ music can actually have a negative effect on things like generosity and collaboration. Or at the very least, such music doesn’t foster empathy anywhere near as much as upbeat music.
So do different types of music have different effects on the brain?
Are some kinds of music better for studying, others for relaxation, and others for getting fired up?
It is probably obvious to most of you, but different types of music do indeed have profoundly different effects on the brain and on behavior.
There aren’t many comparative studies in this area, which is what we really need to draw conclusions. Many studies show that listening to Mozart helps you study, but that doesn’t mean that listening to A Tribe Called Quest wouldn’t help just as much or even more. So we really need comparative studies looking at different types of music simultaneously.
While they are few in number, such studies have been done, and they are thankfully very robust.
Take this study, published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine in 1998. Here, McCraty et. al. looked at how different kinds of music affected participant’s subjective experience. They looked at grunge rock, classical, New Age, and designer music (where a piece has been purposefully designed to elicit a particular effect).
Predictably, “grunge rock music, significant increases were found in hostility, sadness, tension, and fatigue, and significant reductions were observed in caring, relaxation, mental clarity, and vigor.”
Surprisingly, results for classical and New Age music were mixed, with participants experiencing a range of different emotions across time. This probably speaks to classical music’s emotional complexity and sophistication – a major strength of the music, but not necessarily helpful if you have a specific goal in mind.
Much more effective is designer music. This isn’t a big shock. Music designed specifically to lower tension is effective at doing so, as is music designed to enhance focus, and so on. As the researchers said: “Results suggest that designer music may be useful in the treatment of tension, mental distraction, and negative moods.”
These findings are backed up by studies looking at electrical activity in the brain. Studies such as this one have found that different genres or styles of music excite different areas of the brain at different times. While music seems to touch lots of different brain regions at the same time, you can be targeted in which areas you excite by listening to specific types of music.
So different types of music affect the brain and behavior in different ways. There’s no big surprise to this; heavy metal makes you angrier, classical music makes you feel a range of emotions, and designer music can make you feel whatever it is designed to make you feel.
Sample Playlists For Focus, Clarity, and Mood
Here are a few sample pieces of music (or playlists) to help with specific aspects of cognitive function. We aren’t saying that these are the best things to listen to to enhance focus or promote positive moods; they are just some samples for you to try.
Have you got a favorite piece of music to unwind to after work? Or perhaps you have a favorite study playlist? Let us know in the comments!
For this, designer music is the way to go. Look for pieces specifically crafted to promote relaxation, tranquility, and positive mood. Here is a sample piece we love!
For focus, the old recipe of “Mozart, Bach and Beethoven” might actually be sub-optimal, given what we know about classical music’s effect on the brain. To properly enhance attention and concentration, it is best to go for something simple, repetitive, and driving. Ideally, it should be something that can blend into the background while you work – nothing distracting, no major changes, and no complex lyrics.
There are lots of focus playlists on YouTube, but this is one of our favorites for when you really need to get your head down and focus.
This one is easy. To properly stretch your brain’s legs and give it a good bit of stimulation, you want something rich, complex, and intricately structured. You want something that stimulates lots of different areas of the brain at the same time, and takes you through a wide range of emotional states.
Lots of music falls into this category (although most music doesn’t). However, by far and away the best category for this is classical. The works of Verdi, Bach, and Mahler will take you on an emotional roller-coaster ride and give your brain a nice, relaxing ‘workout’ in the meantime.
We recommend giving an entire symphony or opera a try. This will be the most mentally demanding and ultimately worthwhile in our opinion. But if you’re new to classical music, give a few mixes a try to see what sort of thing you like.
Here are some of our favorite mixes:
Of course, classical music isn’t the only type of music to embody rich complexity and emotional maturity. Hip-hop is one genre that provides a lot of the components which make classical music so mentally engaging and rewarding.
Here are some of our favorite albums for musical maturity and complexity:
Let us know what your favorite, most mentally stimulating hip hop albums are and we’ll see if we can feature them here!
Conclusion – Music & The Brain – What’s The Big Deal?
We’ve shown that music can directly affect the brain, both by exciting certain neurons and by promoting neurotransmitter release. Music modulates the release of certain neuropeptides and hormones; this has a phenomenal effect on mood, cognition, and mental health.
We have shown that music can enhance memory, promote focus, increase productivity, and even make people more generous and helpful.
We’ve even explained how music can foster physical brain development, especially in young children.
Finally, we’ve shown how different types of music can effect the brain (and behavior) in very different ways.
It should be clear now that music can have an incredibly large impact on cognitive function, emotional well-being, and productivity. Musical training can be one of the best things young children can do, and listening to more music can help adults become more productive, effective humans.
If nothing else, listening to music can help you chill out; it can give you some perspective; ultimately, it has the power to make you happier.
Bottom Line: If you aren’t already employing music as a targeted cognitive enhancer, you should be!
Henry is a long-time contributor to this site. He has years of experience both using natural nootropic supplements, enhancing productivity, and generally making himself a more efficient, effective, healthier person. He mainly writes about natural cognitive enhancement (through diet, behavior, practices, etc).