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  • Writer's pictureCarla Tanguay, MA, MT-BC

Music and the Adult Brain: Latest Research

As we age, adults often begin to worry about our brain health. Most of us know that exercise and eating right are beneficial to our bodies, but less people are aware of how to best take care of their brain. Part of the reason is that our brains are incredibly complex, and there is much we don't know about how our brains work. Scientific theories that were taught just a few decades ago are being revised as we develop new understandings about the human brain.

2020 Global Council on Brain Health Report

One thing that most neuroscience experts agree on is that music is good for our brains. In 2020, the Global Council on Brain Health (an independent collaborative of scientists, health professionals, scholars, and policy experts) concluded that listening to and making music holds significant potential to support brain health as people age.

After examining hundreds of research studies and exploring ideas across disciplines, the Council made 13 consensus statements about how music promotes healthy aging, along with five recommendations for the therapeutic use of music. These are:

  1. Music is a powerful way to stimulate your brain.

  2. Music impacts different regions of the brain including those involved in hearing/listening, movement, attention, language, emotion, memory, and thinking skills.

  3. Music engages multiple parts of the brain and helps them work together.

  4. Music can help people recall meaningful memories and emotions.

  5. Music is important to promote mental well-being.

  6. Any style or type of music can be beneficial for the brain. It’s important to take into account a person’s musical preferences to maximize music’s potential to promote mental well-being for that person.

  7. Playing music, singing, or dancing together is a good way to increase social connections with other people and reduce loneliness, which is good for brain health.

  8. Music and dance are closely linked. Music motivates movement. Dance and other physical activity are good for brain health.

  9. Learning to sing a new song, learning to play an instrument or learning to dance stimulates people’s thinking skills.

  10. Music allows us to change our emotional state and can often improve mood.

  11. Listening to music can help you manage stress.

  12. Music can have positive effects on the body and mind, including helping to regulate blood pressure and heart rate.

  13. Sleep is important for brain health, and music has been shown to help improve quality and length of sleep.

5 Therapeutic uses of Music

  1. The ability to dance, sing, and listen to music or play a musical instrument can be preserved in people with dementia, even during later stages of the diseases.

  2. Music for persons living with dementia can improve mood and quality of life, and can reduce anxiety and depression. There is mixed evidence that music may also reduce agitation. Ongoing therapy with music the person likes is necessary to maintain the benefits.

  3. Music provides a way for people with dementia to share positive experiences with others and can be a good way to connect with their caregivers.

  4. There is strong evidence that a specialized music-based treatment can improve movement in patients with Parkinson’s disease and stroke, including improvements in walking and talking.

  5. There is strong evidence that music helps recovery from stroke. Singing has been shown to help recover the loss of language functions in people due to stroke.

For the full report from the AARP Global Council on Brain Health, click here.

Other Research Reviews

A 2021 study at the University of Toronto suggests that listening to personally meaningful music induces beneficial brain plasticity in patients with mild cognitive impairment or early Alzheimer’s disease. The lead researcher stated, "“Typically, it’s very difficult to show positive brain changes in Alzheimer’s patients. These preliminary yet encouraging results show improvement in the integrity of the brain, opening the door to further research on therapeutic applications of music for people with dementia – musicians and non-musicians alike."

A 2021 systematic review of research into Music Therapy and Parkinson’s Disease concluded that music therapy programs can achieve improvements in various areas of patients with Parkinson’s. Most frequently studied areas include motor function and communication.

A 2021 meta-review in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society showed older adults who listened to music experienced significantly better sleep quality than those who did not listen to music.

Big Research Initiatives

Several large institutions are currently undergoing large initiatives to study music and our brains and to bring about policy change. These include:

  • The NeuroArts Blueprint Initiative ispartnership between the Johns Hopkins International Arts + Mind Lab Center for Applied Neuroaesthetics and the Aspen Institute’s Health, Medicine & Society Program where a growing body of research-based knowledge about how the brain and body respond to the experience of art is stored.

  • The Sound Health Network is partnership of the National Endowment for the Arts with the University of California, San Francisco in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and Renée Fleming, the center’s artistic advisor. It was established to promote research and public awareness about the impact of music on health and wellness.

  • Center for Music and Medicine is a network of initiatives taking place across The Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Medicine which bring together clinicians, researchers and musicians to explore the complex relationship between music and health and the possibilities for healing through music.

Did you know that music and medicine is being studied at most of the top research and medical programs in the world? Here are just a few more:

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