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Benefits of Music on the Brain

• November 4, 2010 by Bill Jenkins, Ph.D
Educators, researchers and education policy-makers have long discussed the benefits of structured music education. In today's environment of shrinking district resources, the arts are often early arrivals to the budgetary chopping block. Certainly, math, science, language arts and social studies are essential subjects, but we must also understand exactly what is lost when we cut arts programs. When we let go music education, we let rest layers upon layers of essential learning.

• We lose proven benefits to learning and brain function. Through the mechanisms of brain plasticity, music contributes to the development of listening and cognitive skills essential for language.

• Transfer of cognitive skills: Music has been shown to affect how the brain processes pitch, timing and timbre. Along with describing music, these are also key elements of speech and language—that are positively affected by musical training.

• Better recognition of "regularities": The human brain is wired to filter regular predictable patterns out from the noise surrounding us (e.g., we can pick out a friend's voice in a room filled with many other sounds and voices.) Musical training enhances this cognitive ability.

Kraus and Chandresekaran end their article with a discussion of the implications for education. All of the skills and abilities discussed above clearly have the potential to impact student success and achievement "by improving learning skills and listening ability, especially in challenging listening environments." Whether considered as content, as skills or as brain processing exercise, the benefits of music should be carefully weighed as we evaluate its place in the school day.

Listening to music feels good, but can that translate into physiological benefit? Levitin and colleagues published a meta-analysis of 400 studies in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, suggesting the answer is yes.

In one study reviewed, researchers studied patients who were about to undergo surgery. Participants were randomly assigned to either listen to music or take anti-anxiety drugs. Scientists tracked patient's ratings of their own anxiety, as well as the levels of the stress hormone cortisol

The results: The patients who listened to music had less anxiety and lower cortisol than people who took drugs. Levitin cautioned that this is only one study, and more research needs to be done to confirm the results, but it points toward a powerful medicinal use for music. "The promise here is that music is arguably less expensive than drugs, and it's easier on the body and it doesn't have side effects," Levitin said. Levitin and colleagues also highlighted evidence that music is associated with immunoglobin A, an antibody linked to immunity, as well as higher counts of cells that fight germs and bacteria.

More: How music changes the brain
Brain regions involved in movement, attention, planning and memory consistently showed activation when participants listened to music.