Your Brain and Music

What do Bill Clinton and Condoleezza Rice have in common? Ideologically? Not much. But, they're both musicians, and good ones at that. Bill plays the tenor saxophone, and Condoleezza plays the piano. Don't believe us? Check out these videos of the two playing their instruments below.

But, have you ever wondered why people like Bill and Condoleezza get important jobs like the ones they had? Perhaps music has something to do with it.

A growing field of neuroscience research suggests that early exposure to musical education at a young age may not only help you get better at music but also help you develop your ability to process speech.

First, let's give you a quick overview of how the brain works. The brain depends on neurons. When the brain takes in new information (it usually takes information in from your skin, eyes, nose or ears), those neurons communicate with each other, and the neurons fire off electrical impulses in the brain (often times called "brainwaves"). These brainwaves can be detected using special equipment.

Anatomy of a neuron (Source  Wikimedia Commons )

Anatomy of a neuron (Source Wikimedia Commons)

Additionally, your brain has different areas responsible for executing certain types of tasks like math, language and appreciating art. When researchers see brainwave activity in those regions they can infer that the brain is performing a given task.

fMRI scan of the brain. The color indicates places where blood and oxygen flow are increased. (Source:  Wikimedia Commons )

fMRI scan of the brain. The color indicates places where blood and oxygen flow are increased. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

But how do researchers see and measure these brainwaves? Researchers see and measure brain activity using machines called Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) machines. In short, fMRI and PET machines work by allowing researchers to measure blood flow in areas of the brain, which indicate activity in those regions.

Now that you have a basic understanding of how the brain and the basic research methods work, let's talk about how music affects the brain.

Researchers have long wondered how music affects the brain. When researchers studied subjects' brains while listening to music they saw that multiple parts of their brains light up with activity. Researchers saw the subjects' brains taking apart all of the elements of music like speed, pitch and melody and putting them back together within seconds. It became clear that music and the brain interacted with each other in a unique way.

Next, researchers wondered what effect playing music had on musicians’ brains. Well, if listening to music is like your brain going on a run then playing music is like your brain going to a CrossFit gym.

Researchers found that playing music stimulates multiple areas of the brain at once, especially the areas that deal with visual, auditory and motor tasks. Additionally, researchers discovered that playing music activated both hemispheres of the brain allowing musicians to develop linguistic skills, mathematical skills, and memories. Musicians were also found to have improved synaptic strength in their corpus callosum, which is the bridge connecting both halves of the brain, allowing for information to cross between the two hemispheres faster and more efficiently.

But what does all this mean?

Back in 2014 NPR published an article titled "This Is Your Brain. This Is Your Brain On Music." In this article, the writer presented research that followed students who participated in the after-school music program, the Harmony Project. This after school program served students who grew up in poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles. The difference between them and their classmates, however, was that they were more likely to graduate high school and attend colleges like Dartmouth, Tulane, and NYU.

Researchers in this study found that students who studied music had a notable difference in the brainwaves in the language area of the brain. Researchers believed this is because studying music helps students learn to find depth and richness in sound. In this study researchers also argued that music improves the brain's ability to process pitch, timing, and timbre, which helps students learn language better by making a clearer distinction between consonants and vowels clearer.

Source:  Unsplash

Source: Unsplash

Now this doesn’t mean that if you don’t study music you’re not destined to an Ivy League school, but the data do indicate that studying music makes your brain work in a different way, which can only be beneficial. So go ahead and try learning that instrument you're always telling yourself you're going to learn, only great things can come from it!

To learn more about how Audibility is working to deliver music to everyone and stimulate the brain, visit our website at! You can also follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Medium.  

Sources: PET Scans and fMRI ComparedTEDEd: How Playing an Instrument Benefits the Brain; nprED: This Is Your Brain. This Is Your Brain On Music

For further reading: New York Times: New Ways Into the Brain's 'Music Room'; Johns Hopkins Medicine: Keep Your Brain Young with Music