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Music for Life – 15 Ways Music Benefits Intellectual Health

Updated: Mar 6, 2019

In the last "Music for Life" post, we learned about how music benefits us physically. Now, let's explore how learning music is good for our intellectual development. Music is beneficial to our brains. In fact, music is hardwired into us. Research shows that babies cry to the sound of common musical intervals. The sing-song chants of young children are often a series of minor-thirds. (Think "Rain, Rain, Go Away.") In the case of stroke victims, music aids recovery of verbal skills. There was a time when music as medicine might seem to be a spurious claim; however, today's research shows that this to a very real-world phenomenon. The benefits of music learning on the intellectual development of children and teens and the intellectual abilities of elderly adults with dementia are widely studied and are accepted scientific facts today.

While there have been some over-exaggerated claims made about the positive effects of music and learning. For example, the so-called "Mozart Effect" is not be as profound as it was original reported to be. The "Mozart Effect" was the claim that listening to Mozart’s music makes people smarter, and subsequently, lead to the creation of “Baby Einstein” audio and video recordings that claimed to increase a child’s IQ by exposing babies to Classical music. While the effects of listening to Mozart specifically was found to be exaggerated, exposure to music in general has been shown to increase a person’s spatial-temporal abilities. The actual benefit comes from “enjoyment arousal,” meaning people perform better when they are enjoying themselves. Music boosts mood, which in turn, boosts academic performance. So, listening to any type of music that a person enjoys has a positive effect, regardless of genre or style.

When we listen to music, our brains become active in many different regions simultaneously. (The TED video below shows how the brain processes music.) Music activates the auditory, limbic, and motor areas of our brain, as well as the regions of the brain which are used for self-reference and aesthetic judgement. If the music contains lyrics, we also use the part of our brain that processes language.

While enjoying music has a definite intellectual benefit, creating and playing music has even greater results. Researchers at Northwestern University have shown that to reap the most rewards from music, students need to be actively create music themselves. Playing in instrument in music class leads to better neural processing. Biological changes occur in students who make music that don’t occur in those who simply listen. In fact, musicians have more robust brain stems than non-musicians. In another study, professional keyboardists were found to have twice the grey matter volume than amateur keyboardists. Music doesn’t just influence our actions, it shapes our brains, and in turn, our improves ability to think.

“We like to say that ‘making music matters’ because it is only through the active generation and manipulation of sound that music can rewire the brain.” - Nina Kraus, Audio Neuroscience Laboratory of Northwestern University