6 Ancestral Health Benefits of Music | Chris Kresser
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6 Ancestral Health Benefits of Music

by Katie Melville, Ph.D.

Published on

health benefits of music
Stress relief is just one health benefit of music. iStock/Delmaine Donson

All cultures throughout history created music, and it’s universal in our world today. Read on to learn about the health benefits of music and how it changes your brain, boosts your mood, and promotes well-being.

How does music benefit your health? Check out this article from Katie Melville for six ways that music promotes well-being. #healthylifestyle #paleo #wellness

Music Is Universal and Timeless

Discussions of ancestral health focus heavily on diet and exercise, which are critical to good health. But we often forget that finding time to relax, rest, and play is arguably just as important to our well-being as humans. Throughout history, music in all its variations has provided ways for humans to socialize, create, and relax.

Music dates back at least to Paleolithic times, and possibly even earlier. The oldest instruments found by paleontologists resembled flutes and were constructed out of animal bones more than 40,000 years ago. (1) Drumming and singing probably originated even earlier.

All cultures throughout history created music, and it’s universal in our world today. In the background, music plays in elevators, restaurants, gyms, and retail stores. We sing lullabies to infants, teach the alphabet to children through song, and enjoy musicals and concerts as adults. From birth until old age, music can excite, entertain, edify—and even benefit cognitive and emotional health.

How Your Body Responds to Music

Depending on the genre and style, listening to and playing music can elicit physiological changes. Relaxing music, especially classical music, can lower heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure. (2) Pleasurable music has been shown to increase endorphin, dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin levels, which mediate feelings of pleasure, happiness, and relaxation. (3, 4) While relaxing music can decrease the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, tense music can increase cortisol levels. (5)

Music Activates Multiple Brain Regions

Brain imaging studies that use functional magnetic resonance imaging or positron emission tomography scans indicate that music stimulates multiple brain regions, including auditory, cognitive, sensory-motor, and emotional areas. (6) The type of music influences which regions are stimulated. For example, sad music activates the hippocampus, amygdala, and medial temporal lobes, regions that are associated with negative emotions and anxiety, while familiar, happy music can activate the pleasure and reward centers of the brain, including the orbitofrontal cortex. (7)

Music Changes Your Brain

Musical training, whether voice or instrument, is a prime example of neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change structure and function based on environmental inputs. Just three years of musical training as a child can create brain changes that are evident into adulthood. (8) The brains of musicians look different from the brains of non-musicians:

  • The brain regions associated with sound perception and production are larger in musicians’ brains. (9)
  • Musicians generally have a more equal balance between left brain and right brain, as musical training involves creativity, thought to be a more “left-brain” function, but also rhythm and math, which are considered more “right-brain” processes. (10)
  • Structural brain changes in musicians correspond to the instrument played. For example, piano players have enlarged brain regions associated with hand and finger movement. (11)
But even listening to music without any formal training can change the brain. An interesting study showed that compared to listening to audiobooks, listening to music increased the gray matter in the frontal-limbic areas of the brain, which are linked to improved cognition, language, and attention. (12)

Six Health Benefits of Music

Music can affect our moods, change our brains, and improve our well-being—and you don’t have to be a professional musician to reap the rewards.

1. Relieves Stress

Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, the “fight-or-flight” response that increases heart rate and pumps cortisol through our bodies, in anticipation of a threat. Today, too many of us are constantly stressed. Our bodies spend too much time in the sympathetic state and not enough time in the parasympathetic state—the “rest-and-digest” state.

When listening to relaxing music, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in. (13) Heart rate decreases, blood pressure lowers, and respiration slows when listening to classical music from composers like Mozart. Playing or listening to relaxing music can also lower cortisol. (14)

Heart rate variability (HRV), the variation in time intervals between heart beats, correlates with better balance between parasympathetic and sympathetic states. Several studies have found that singing can increase HRV, with professional singers at the top! (15)

Due to music’s ability to relieve stress and relax the body, music has also been shown to help with:

2. Eases Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression

Have you ever purposely listened to upbeat, happy music to boost your mood? Music probably can’t cure anxiety or depression, but it can definitely improve symptoms as part of a holistic treatment plan. In medical facilities, listening to enjoyable music can help ease the anxiety that patients feel before surgery or during chemotherapy, likely due to music’s ability to reduce cortisol levels and promote relaxation. (21, 22) In one study, listening to relaxing music was as effective as a benzodiazepine for relieving the physical signs during periods of intense anxiety, like increased heart rate, chest tightness, and labored breathing. (23)

3. Improves Immune Function

Listening to and making music elicit differential effects on the immune system. Studies have found that levels of secretory immunoglobulin A, a measure of individual immune capacity, increase after singing and playing an instrument more so than after just listening to music. (24) Researchers have also shown increased levels of T cells, part of the adaptive immune response, after listening to and playing music, although results do vary on the type of music and level of participation. (25)

Participating in a drumming group increased the activity of natural killer and other immune killer cells. (26) But, on the flip side, listening to relaxing music can actually decrease natural killer cell levels. (27) Overall, though, music in many forms seems to improve immune function.

4. Prevents Age-Related Cognitive Decline

Some level of cognitive decline with aging is considered par for the course (28)—but just because something is “common” doesn’t mean it is “normal.” Many environmental factors can influence whether you age gracefully, including diet, exercise, and stress management, but music in particular can help keep your thinking sharp.

Brain gray matter volume decreases with age, especially in the prefrontal cortex, temporal lobes, and hippocampus. (29) Executive function, associated with the prefrontal cortex, is often the first to go. Musical training is known to foster executive function, and could be one reason that musicians have less cognitive decline as they age. (30)

For example, compared to those who didn’t have musical training, elderly patients between the ages of 60 and 83 who had at least 10 years of musical training demonstrated superior executive function and nonverbal memory. (31) Another study measured brain volumes in elderly former orchestra members and non-musician controls and found that the musicians did not show the same level of brain degeneration compared to the controls. (32)

But it’s not just former music training that can make a difference in cognition late in life. Six months of basic piano training in elderly patients with no former musical training improved their working memory, reaction times, and motor skills. (33)

5. Fosters Social Connection

Humans are social creatures. Music has always been an avenue for friends and families to spend quality time together. When making music together or dancing with others, the brain releases oxytocin and other neurohormones that strengthen relationships and trust. (34) Our ancestors likely sang, danced, and played music by the fire. Today, music plays at concerts, dances, parades, weddings, churches, and so much more.

6. Improves Quality of Life for People with Neurological Disorders

Because of its ability to activate multiple brain regions, music as a therapy has been shown to improve the quality of life, especially in patients with neurological disorders. A licensed music therapist may work with patients in a variety of musical interventions, including: (35)

  • Listening to relaxing music
  • Listening to familiar music to elicit memories
  • Incorporating movement with music
  • Musical improvisation
  • Instrument lessons
  • Singing

Music therapy has been used for at least 100 years, even before scientists understood how it worked. (36) Today, we still don’t fully understand all the mechanisms, but we know that its therapeutic effects stem from music’s ability to activate regions of the brain involving speech, movement, memory, reward, and emotion. Music therapists can help address symptoms of the following neurological conditions with minimal side effects:

  • Linking music with movement can help patients with Parkinson’s disease improve cognition and motor control. (37, 38)
  • After a stroke, listening to personal music can reduce depression symptoms and confusion, while benefiting measures of cognition. (39)
  • Music therapy in people with autism spectrum disorder can improve communication and social-emotional functions. (40, 41)
  • Memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia can cause frustration and anger, but listening to music playlists chosen by family members can help reduce agitation in these patients. (42, 43)

Music has been a part of the human experience since Paleolithic times—or even earlier. Whether you’re listening, playing, singing, or dancing, enjoy the many ways music can benefit your mental and cognitive health.