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Henry, who was an Alzheimer’s patient in his later years living in a nursing home, was unresponsive and slumped over in his chair until he is given a pair of headphones. As soon as Henry put the headphones on, he completely changed character—he became animated and was able to recall his childhood.
Research has shown that music boosts memory in Alzheimer’s patients, and that they can be particularly affected by music from their youth, showing that music can stay with us even when other aspects of our memory deteriorate. (1,2) Behold, the profound power of music!
We all have favorite pieces of music that really resonate with us. The ones that feel like they are expressing things that words can’t; the ones that pump us up and get us going; the ones that so beautifully match a feeling of longing or melancholy; the ones that can even give us goosebumps.
Take a moment and contemplate the importance of music in your life…
In the Ayurvedic tradition, chanting and playing music that was in harmony with each season and each time of day allowed humans to entrain the rhythms of nature and the seasons deep into their cellular structure.
For instance, there are particular ragas (songs or melodies) for the morning, for springtime, for a full moon, or even to heal a specific organ in the body.
In modern times, as part of the emerging field of circadian medicine, these traditional practices are just now beginning to make sense.
Interestingly, modern science has found that when you listen to a song for the first time, certain pre-existing connections of neurons in the brain can predict—before you’ve even heard the song—how much you will like the music. Not only that, but these preferences are guided by your previous musical choices and preferences. (3,4)
These established neural pathways are exactly what keep us behaving in the same established ways based on our ingrained emotional patterns from childhood—we keep walking down the paved road because we have walked it over and over before, and we’re often not aware that there is even another road to consider. These established neural pathways have us choosing both the same types of behavior patterns and music patterns over and over.
Speaking of music and the brain, music therapy has been noted as a tool that can enhance neuroplasticity in the brain. This means that music can help the brain to change, evolve, and even grow. (5)
In fact, musicians have been scientifically shown to have enhanced cognitive and sensorimotor functions, associated with their music training. Thus, music-making can be considered a remedy for developmental and neurological disorders, and can help to keep the brain and neural processes healthy. (6)
Further, children who are engaged with music in positive, rewarding ways have been found to have increased capacities such as language development, creativity, intelligence, self-confidence, emotional sensitivity, and concentration. (7) In addition to all of the cognitive benefits of music, actively participating in playing music can also boost one’s immune system. (8)
Data from U.S. Spotify listeners concluded that age 33 is, on average, when people tend to stop seeking out new music. Parents, at any age, were found to listen to smaller amounts of currently-popular music than non-parents their age. (9)
Music’s appeal often comes from its ability to evoke emotion in us, particularly nostalgia. (10,11) Interestingly, nostalgia has been scientifically found to increase optimism (12), as well as create meaning in our lives. (13) Optimism and meaning are important contributing factors to human longevity. (14-18)
Curiously, when scientists played classical music from India, known as Raag Kirwani, for microbes, they found that the music stimulated growth, metabolism, and an altered membrane linked with increased susceptibility to antibiotics. The cell membrane changes in response to music. (19,20) Remember, the cell membrane is where the “brain” of the cell is, with all of its sensory functions. Music can change our awareness!
This science is perhaps what caused a sewage operator near Berlin to continuously play Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” to his sewage plant. He believes that the music is stimulating to the microbes and helps them break down sewage faster. It has actually reduced the cost of waste treatment in a smaller sewage plant in Austria, and the plant outside Berlin expects to save as much as €1,000 per month through this method. (21)
Music shapes our brains epigenetically as well—that is, communication and emotion, as transmitted through music, can be linked to a change in our genes. Music, as a cognitive and physical stimulus, can be a source of generating new neurons in the brain. (22) Further, sound vibration and electromagnetic energy oscillation patterns have been shown to influence our gene expression, biological signaling, and healing capacities. (23)
In the realm of exercise, music has been found to enhance both enjoyment and performance of sprint interval training. (24) Interestingly, motivational music has been found to enhance athletes’ recovery from intense exercise by promoting faster decreases in lactate levels, increased general activity, and reduced perceived exertion. (25)
And let’s not forget the power of the Mozart effect! When subjects listened to Mozart’s “Sonata for Two Pianos K.448” for ten minutes, for 10-15 minutes after, they showed significantly increased spatial reasoning skills compared to periods of listening to silence or relaxation instructions designed to lower blood pressure. On average, IQ scores were shown to be 8 and 9 points higher after listening to Mozart compared to silence or the relaxing instructions. (26,27)
It is clear that music and what we expose ourselves to through our sense of hearing can be a very potent force, affecting our health, our awareness, our well-being, and ultimately, our longevity.