Music on the Brain and Mental Health

Music by its literal meaning could very well be “an arrangement of sounds composed of melody, rhythm and harmony”. But what makes music a powerful source of stress-relieving or even addicting in ways that we do not even notice it? What role does it play in the function of our brain?

Let’s break it down into a few scientific facts:

1. Music increases our happiness hormones
Research has shown that music stimulates certain neurotransmitters such as dopamine, which is associated with feelings of happiness, as well as oxytocin, being linked to having a “warm, fuzzy feeling” that lowers stress levels in the human brain. According to the 2020 AARP Music and Brain Health survey, it was found that when adults listened to music, directly or in the background, there was a slight beneficial effect on their mental health and reduced levels of depression and anxiety.

2. Music strengthens our brain network
From the frontal lobe to the motor system, music activates most parts of our brain which also happens to be synchronised. It maintains our brain pathways and networks that are vital to our emotional and physical well-being and quality of life. As parts of our brain collectively respond to music, it also enhances our cognitive function such as:
Frontal lobe – involved in decision making and other higher level executive functions
Broca’s area – enables us to produce speech
Cerebellum – coordinates movement and stores physical memory
Hippocampus – produces and retrieves memories
Hypothalamus – produces and releases essential hormones and chemicals that regulate bodily functions

3. Music are strong emotional memories
A study by Sugaya and Yonetani has revealed that patients with dementia responded better to the music they listened to for the earlier parts of their lives. Sugaya refers to memories associated with music as “emotional memories”, which remain intact in the human brain despite certain cognitive deteriorations like dementia and Alzheimer’s. Music’s role in the cerebellum also keeps muscle memories in place despite any sort of memory impairment. In an Alzheimer’s patient’s case, they could still manage to maintain their piano skills, having learnt them in their childhood.

With that being said, beyond the melody, rhythm and harmony, whether it is our mental health or our brain functions, music plays as a stress-reliever and one of the most accessible methods to generate a small, but positive impact on our daily lives – it never hurts to put down your pen and shut down your laptops every once in a while, plug your headphones in and enjoy your favourite music playing through your ears.