There are too many signs that point to music as being good for our brains, more specifically our memory.
I’ve gathered info from nine music and memory studies to help you better understand the effect of music on the brain. The takeaways can help you think of creative ways to incorporate the benefits of music into your own or a loved one’s life.
Music and Memory Study #1: Petr Janata
A UC Davis study conducted by Petr Janata found that music triggers memory in the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that Alzheimer’s touches last. He discovered from brain scans there was an increased level of mental activity in 17 participants who listened to 30 music samples.
This explains why even Alzheimer’s patients who endure increasing memory loss can still remember songs from deep into their past. Music memory is one of the last parts of your brain that Alzheimer’s deteriorates.
Takeaway: prepare an autobiographical playlist for anyone who can benefit from listening to their favorite tunes from a certain pleasant era of their life.
For my uncle John, who is 80 years old, this means gathering some of his favorite jazz tunes from the 50s period. I asked him who some of his top artist choices were and am collecting pieces from B.B. King, Henry Mancini, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.
Music and Memory Study #2: Brandon Ally
Researcher Brandon Ally ran a study in 2010 that showed music has the power to help Alzheimer’s patients learn new information, something that can benefit treatment adherence. The small study of 32 participants was enough to give us an indication that Alzheimer’s patients could use music to maintain independence, for example by using a song to remember which medications to take and when.
The study compared a group of healthy seniors with a group of Alzheimer’s patients. The group of healthy seniors learned just as many lyrics with or without musical prompts, however the group of Alzheimer’s patients learned more lyrics when associated with music.
Following his study, Ally summarized:
“One thing we do know about the way the brain processes music is that it’s more of a global process. While the parts of the brain where we make memories (the medial temporal lobes like the hippocampus) are the first parts to be ravaged as Alzheimer’s develops, music pulls from the cortical and subcortical areas, which aren’t as damaged by the disease.”
Takeaway: use music as a learning tool. Songs and lyrics can be used for healthcare adherence or even to remember certain things. Get in the habit of memorizing with music to exercise that part of your brain processing.
Music and Memory Study #3: Alice Mado Proverbio
A study conducted by Alice Mado Proverbio and her colleagues at the Milan-Mi Center for Neuroscience in Italy found that listening to emotionally touching music enhances facial memory capacity. The experiment measured the impact of auditory backgrounds, such as rain or joyful music, as well as emotionally touching music, and found that across 54 non-musician participants emotionally touching music improved memory and significantly increased their heart rates.
This is not to say that all music is helpful for memory. Here are some caveats:
- Listening to some music, especially complex music, can interrupt memorization
- Silence can be more effective for certain memorization tasks
- Background music can have a slightly negative effect on memorization and can interfere with certain cognitive
Takeaway: while music can generally help you relax, choose your music wisely and go with emotionally touching vs background music when trying to complete a task that requires concentration or improved memory.
Music and Memory Study #4: Rosi Bottiroli
Rosi Bottiroli and his colleagues found that processing speed improves with upbeat music and memory benefits from both upbeat and downbeat music. More specifically, Bottiroli found that arousal and mood enhancing music, such as Mozart, improves memory tasks among older adults.
This “Arousal-Mood” hypothesis also aligns with known as William Forde Thompson and colleagues’ “Mozart effect,” where Alzheimer’s patients have seen increased autobiographical memory. Verbal memory encoding, verbal and visual processing speed, reading and math skills have also been understood to improve under the Mozart effect.
Takeaway: when learning something new, use mood enhancing music without lyrics and tap into the Mozart effect.
Music and Memory Study #5: Lutz Jäncke
Lutz Jäncke from the Institute of Psychology at the University of Zurich, Switzerland found that music triggers different types of memory:
- Explicit memory – deliberate, conscious, intentional
- Implicit memory – reactive, unintentional, emotional
Implicit memory systems are robust and emotional, and not damaged by Alzheimer’s disease, which means the memory beyond our consciousness is very powerful. Music is something that triggers subconscious emotional memory.
This helps to explain why music memory is the last to go for Alzheimer’s patients, and why emotionally touching music helps improve someone’s recollection.
“Hearing music associated with our past often evokes a strong ‘feeling of knowing’. We have this feeling for many songs without knowing the title or text of the songs.”
Takeaway: when we talk about our life and have a strong association with music during certain periods that we recall, those memories are autobiographical memories. Take note of these and create a playlist.
Music and Memory Study #6: Adam Tierney
Singing and music training can help you learn language skills and shift auditory development in adolescents. A study conducted by Adam Tierney and colleagues showed that students who went through music training “exhibited earlier emergence of the adult cortical response,” which means learning music can accelerate neurodevelopment.
Amy Spray, PhD at the University of Liverpool wrote:
“Music could potentially function as a training ground for language skills and may potentially offer an effective, economical and enjoyable activity that could help improve language skills in children around the world if employed in schools. Giving adolescents musical training could help kick-start and accelerate maturation of their brains.”
Takeaway: it’s never too early to start enriching the brain. There’s the potential for increasing brain plasticity during adolescence years through music training, which can result in enhancing neural processing and improvement of language skills.
Music and Memory Study #7: Baird & Sampson
In a 2013 study, Baird and Sampson found that people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries experienced the return of autobiographical memories through the use of music.
A group of five patients who suffered from varying levels of acquired brain injury (ABI) was asked a series of autobiographical memory questions following the music listening experiment. Dubbed music evoked autobiographical memories (MEAMs), these memories were triggered in the participants after they listened to 50 top hit songs from a relevant period in their lives.
As the first study of MEAMs after ABI, Baird and Sampson found that music is an effective stimulus for eliciting autobiographical memories, which means patients could benefit from rehab of autobiographical amnesia.
Takeaway: autobiographical music typically covers two generations of memories; you have your parents’ music choices that played in your home while growing up, and you have your own music choices that you picked as a teen.
Music and Memory Study #8: Vinoo Alluri
Vinoo Alluri and his researcher colleagues conducted a study in 2013 that predicted lateralized brain responses to music. They found that music activates widespread regions of the brain: the auditory, the motor and the limbic (emotional) regions.
Alluri and his research group highlighted:
“Activations in the medial orbitofrontal region and the anterior cingulate cortex, relevant for self-referential appraisal and aesthetic judgments, could be predicted successfully… We introduced a powerful means to predict brain responses to music, speech, or soundscapes across a large variety of contexts.”
Takeaway: if at all on your list of life desires, learn to play an instrument. This will help keep your prefrontal cortex engaged. If you already know how to play an instrument, continue playing. If you don’t want to learn an instrument, try to incorporate music into your life as much as possible, especially emotionally touching and autobiographical music.
Music and Memory Study #9: Teppo Särkämö
Researchers led by Dr. Teppo Särkämö at the University of Helsinki in FInland revealed in a 2015 study that leisurely musical activities, particularly singing, are beneficial for memory and mood, particularly in early dementia.
Särkämö’s group studied 89 patients with mild to moderate dementia who were given a 10-week music coaching intervention. They found that for patients younger than 80 years of age with mild forms of dementia, singing is beneficial for working memory, executive function and orientation. For patients with mild, Alzheimer-type dementia, both singing and listening to music helped alleviate depression, and it didn’t matter whether or not the patients had a background in playing an instrument.
Takeaway: music as a therapy for late stages of Alzheimer’s can help in reducing agitation, while improving mood, social interaction and motor skills.
There’s a ton of evidence that shows the positive impact of music on the brain. Like any other muscle in your body, the brain should be exercised to increase brain plasticity. If an onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s is already happening, musical therapies and tactics can help with symptoms.
With Alzheimer’s touching 1 in 3 of us in the US, it’s important to take preventive action.
Which of these music and memory studies and takeaways will you use today to help with increasing brain activity?