We take it as read that playing a musical instrument or singing is good for the brain, the body and the emotions. Great minds such as Plato, William Shakespeare, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Hans Christian Andersen have said as much, not to mention notable musicians as Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Ludwig van Beethoven and (ahem) John Miles..But is it all supposition and pseudo-science? Anita Holford and Dyfan Wyn Owen take a look at the evidence. This article was first published on Musicstage.co, the online platform for the whole music community.
We all know from experience that listening to music is good for us. Countless scientific studies have proven its power too, in improving mood, helping with relaxation, increasing motivation, easing pain, and helping us to focus. Other studies have shown its impact on prematurely born babies, children on the autism spectrum, adults with Parkinson’s disease, cancer or those who have suffered a stroke. And organisations such as Music in Hospitals, Live Music Now, Welsh National Opera (Singing Doctors) and Music for Memory all use listening to music to make a difference to people’s health and wellbeing.
Early brain development and preparation for a healthy life
The power of music’s impact on health starts at birth it seems – and even pre-birth. Researchers in Finland found that even before birth, our brains are wired to hear and respond to music, and that exposure to music has a positive influence on brain development at this critical period.
Anita Collins, a researcher in neuroscience and music education at the University of Canberra goes so far as to call music the ‘neural network enhancer’ because of its importance in developing healthy brains from an early age.
So if listening to music is good for you, what impact does actually playing an instrument, singing or creating music have?
Making music: a full-body brain workout
Anita Collins says that: “When you listen to music, multiple areas of your brain become engaged and active.” But she goes on to explain: “When you actually learn an instrument, that activity becomes more like a full-body brain workout.”
And it’s this that gets neuroscientists really excited, because musicians use more parts of their brain simultaneously to complete tasks. When researchers scanned people’s brains while they listened to music they saw ‘fireworks’. However, those ‘fireworks became a jubilee’ when they scanned the brains of musicians playing their instruments.
WATCH: How playing an instrument benefits your brain
Creating a more efficient brain
Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory in Illinois, studies the neurobiology underlying speech and music perception and associated brain plasticity, and its powerful bank of research also contains studies that make the case for the health benefits of music.
“Making music can have a profound and lifelong impact,” says Dr Nina Krauss, who leads the Laboratory. “The experience of making music appears to create a more efficient brain, in a sense it super-charges the nervous system, and enhances a person’s ability to listen, learn and communicate, especially through sound – and that can have long-term affects on a person’s wellbeing.”
WATCH: Nina Krauss talking about the long-lasting effects of music on the nervous system:
WATCH: Ed’s story – following a car accident and severe head trauma, Ed recovered with the help of music.
Protecting the brain from aging and hearing loss
A study from the Laboratory published in 2012 showed that musicians suffered less from aging-related memory and hearing losses than non-musicians, and was believed to be the first study to provide biological evidence that lifelong musical experience has an impact on the aging process. It showed that it can fine-tune the human brain, biologically and neurologically enhancing its performance and protecting it from some of the ravages of time.
“Musicians get very good at pulling out meaningful information from a complex sound environment.” Dr Kraus said. “If they’re members of an orchestra, they’ll need to distinguish the sounds coming from other instruments, or the harmony, or a bass line. That means they can then apply those skills in other settings, throughout their lives. It’s about more than just hearing: it’s to do with how quickly you can process information and how well you remember it.
“It’s not enough just to listen to music though,” she continues. “It’s the intensity of actually performing that is the active ingredient. You can’t expect to get physically fit by watching spectator sports, and the same applies to music.”
Coping and being happy
Anyone who’s made music knows that it makes us happy and lifts the spirits – but there’s research to show how that can help our long-term wellbeing – particularly making music in a group.
A year-long study of 400 people by the Institute of Education, University of London, found that older people who are part of music groups are more likely to be happier [CHECK LINK] – and even healthier – than their peers who opt for alternative leisure pursuits like arts and crafts, yoga, languages or book clubs. Those who took part in music groups had higher levels of well-being, including a stronger sense of purpose in life and of feeling in control. They also had more positive social relationships than those taking part in other activities.
WATCH: ‘Music saved my life’ – a trailer for the Oscar-nominated film, The Lady in Number 6, about Holocaust survivor and pianist, Alice Hoffman:
Julia, a 49-year old education programme manager found that taking up cornet again after 25 years brought about a turning point in her life. “I’d become very depressed as a result of the end of a long-term relationship and was feeling lost and dissatisfied in life and work”. After beginning a course of anti-depressants and counselling, a chance meeting with an old friend prompted her to go along to a band rehearsal, after which she says “I felt like I had come home.” She started taking lessons again, and within three months of her first lesson, played her first concert and remembers “I was so happy and proud of myself for getting this far that I welled up on stage. I had proved to myself that I could achieve and therefore I had something to look forward to in life; an emotion I had not felt for several years.” Since then, Julia has given up her job and enrolled on a course at University, and she puts that down to the band: “I have the confidence to try and I know I can learn new things and improve skills. I am no longer apprehensive meeting new people. Playing music with others is so important to my mental wellbeing.”
Miriam Akhtar, a leading positive psychologist, became a member of a local choir, and realised that singing in a choir might be one of the best positive psychology interventions around. Research by Canterbury Christ Church University has also found that group singing can help people cope with adverse life events.
Indeed, it’s singing that may offer the most powerful evidence of music’s role in wellbeing. And the benefits go beyond happiness and wellbeing, to addressing some of the most common long-term conditions.
Singing for health and mental health
The Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health at Canterbury Christ Church University has carried out hundreds of studies that demonstrate the benefits of singing.
One of its research projects was the world’s first randomised control trial on singing for older people, ‘The Silver Song Club Project’. Participants over the age of 60 completed a succession of standardised health measures before and after. These health indicators – covering social, emotional and physical health – were consistently higher among the singing group than among the non-singing group and as a result there are now clubs – now named ‘Sing for Your Life’ – across the UK and the world.
The Centre has also conducted research on singing and mental health. Dr Ian Morrison, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre, led a study on singing and mental health in Kent, and concluded: “Regular group singing can be clinically beneficial for people with mental health issues, as well as reaping social benefits and enjoying peer support … we feel that group singing is a cost-effective health promotion strategy for people with mental health issues.”
Tuning your lungs
The Centre was also responsible for the first ‘Singing for Breathing’ initiative – for people with lung conditions. Anecdotal evidence suggests that people feel better, sleep better, and receive a physical workout. The idea has since been taken on board in other areas, including by the Respiratory Team at Glan Clwyd Hospital in Bodelwyddan, Denbighshire. Music Therapist Christine Eastwood, who helped to develop the group, said, ‘‘Techniques such as relaxation training, playful vocal exercise and singing of new and familiar songs help to improve physical awareness, fitness and breathing management, and always include some laughter.” The projects have been so successful that a network of singing groups is now supported by the British Lung Foundation.
Coping with cancer
Music’s impact on brain health, mental health and lung health may seem highly plausible, but how can music impact on a disease such as cancer? In January 2010 Welsh cancer charity Tenovus set up the ‘Sing for Life’ choir to find out, and to see if this could act as an alternative support group.
Researchers at the School of Healthcare Studies at Cardiff University saw remarkable improvements in members’ vitality, social function and mental health as well as a reduction in bodily pain as a result of singing. There were also indications that the Choir alleviated anxiety and depression in members who reported these symptoms before the Choir started.
Coping with or avoiding Alzheimer’s, Stroke and Parkinson’s
Many of us will know people who, despite speaking difficulties, can still sing; or who can remember songs and pieces of music, but have difficulty retrieving other memories.
The power of music to help support people with long-term conditions such as stroke, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease is being proven both in research and in practice by groups such as Alzheimer’s Society’s Singing for the Brain groups; Sing for Joy, a choir for sufferer’s of Parkinson’s disease, and the University of Auckland’s CeleBRation Choir for people with a range of neurological conditions.
A study led by Gottfried Schlaug, a neurology professor at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, has even shown that teaching stroke patients to sing “rewires” their brains, helping them recover their speech.
Indeed, a study conducted in Leipzig, Germany found that the parts of the brain that respond to music seem to withstand the damage caused by Alzheimer’s disease, and a study of twins in California found that those who were able to make music had a one-third lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
WATCH: ‘Alive inside’ – trailer for documentary about the transformational effects of listening to music for Henry, who has Alzheimer’s:
Dr Anthea Holland, Director of Mindsong – Music for Dementia, says: “During my many years as a GP I frequently visited patients in local care homes. While the basic care offered was good, all too often residents with advancing dementia seemed lost, robbed of the ability to communicate through speech in any meaningful way. The fact that many people can still communicate through music is a gift that Mindsong exploits and yields small but highly significant miracles. To see someone mouthing the words of a song from long ago, to see eyes light up and perhaps a hint of a smile or even tears silently falling from the eyes of someone who had appeared completely unresponsive is both humbling and a privilege. The words of a Mindsong violinist sum this up: ‘The power of music to connect is stronger than our ability to reason. In the misty world of dementia, a familiar tune can pierce the gloom like a sunbeam. They and I are lifted beyond understanding to the realm where the musical becomes the spiritual’.”
So there you have it. Listening to music is good for you, but playing a musical instrument or singing has powerful, long-lasting effects on your health and wellbeing. If you’re already a musician or singer, making sure you make time to play regularly is going to give you more than just pleasure. And if you’re not, you could take up a musical instrument, make more time to sing in the home, or join a music group to give your brain a full-body workout. It seems there are few better ways to be healthy, happy and mentally fit.
Photograph: thanks to Mindsong and photographer Paul Saunders.