Feel Better with Beats: How Music Can Boost Your Brain and Heart Health

Growing up, my parents always encouraged me to learn how to play a musical instrument. And without their early motivation, I might not have started playing music as soon as I did, or been as disciplined in my practice. Although a passion for music runs in my family, I’m sure my parents never considered the array of potential health benefits that come with it.

The World of Music at Your Fingertips

Thanks to the internet, we now have access to an unbelievable variety of musical styles, genres, and compositions. Browsing through websites like YouTube, it sometimes feels like a dedicated music enthusiast could listen to nearly all the music created in the past 300 years.

My own musical obsession has led me to learn to play several different instruments. While I may not be an expert at any one in particular, I find that engaging in emotional and physical activities like playing the guitar and piano every day makes me feel better overall.

And it’s not just personal experience: research into the effects of music – both listening to and performing it – has proven that the activity offers measurable health benefits.

Boosting Brain Function

Scientists at the University of Liverpool found increased blood flow in participants’ brains after a single, 30-minute music lesson. This increased blood flow, specifically in the left hemisphere of the brain, suggests that engaging with music activates the part of the brain responsible for both music and language processing.

This leads to the probable conclusion that singing and playing an instrument can improve overall language skills. Researcher Amy Spray states: “The areas of our brain that process music and language are thought to be shared, and previous research has suggested that musical training can lead to the increased use of the left hemisphere of the brain.”

Exercising with Music

Other research has found that listening to music while exercising can significantly improve brain function. During a study at Ohio State University, researchers decided to investigate the effects of music on the workout performance of heart disease patients. Charles Emery, one of the researchers behind the study, explained: “Evidence suggests that exercise improves the cognitive performance of people with coronary artery disease. And listening to music is thought to enhance brain power. We wanted to put the two results together.”

The study found that the patients who listened to classical music during their treadmill exercises reported improved moods and mental outlook, regardless of whether they listened to music or not. However, their improvement in verbal fluency tests after exercising with music was more than double the improvement without music.

“Exercise seems to cause positive changes in the nervous system, and these changes may have a direct effect on cognitive ability,” Emery says. “Listening to music may influence cognitive function through different pathways in the brain. The combination of music and exercise may stimulate and increase cognitive arousal while helping to organize cognitive output.”

A Myriad of Musical Benefits

If you haven’t integrated music into your daily routine yet, now is the time to reap the body and brain-boosting benefits. Even if you only listen to –rather than play– music, you can still benefit.

Recent research indicates that:

  • Early musical training keeps your brain younger as you age. A study at Northwestern University found that middle-aged people who received musical training early on in life performed better on brain tests as they grew older. This benefit persists even if you haven’t played music much since your youth.
  • Listening to your favorite music can lower your blood pressure. Research from New Westminster College in Canada shows that when heart patients listen to music they enjoy, their blood vessels relax and function more efficiently. The music leads to measurable improvements in the relaxation of vessel walls.
  • Listening to religious music you appreciate can improve your mental health. A study from the University of Texas-San Antonio found that older adults who listen to religious music experience greater life satisfaction and less anxiety.

Morning Melodies

Years ago, my father would tune into a news radio station every morning. To this day, the tinny voice on that radio speaker telling us to pay attention to the weather and traffic on the eights still echoes in my mind. But now, when I prepare for work in the morning, the news is the last thing I want to hear. I choose to listen to music instead.

And even if researchers hadn’t confirmed that music fine-tunes your health, I’d still have a healthy appetite for a bounty of bouncy tunes.