Music to Your Brain

Listening to Music or Playing an Instrument Can Help Your Mood and Memory

Music has the ability to soothe, energize, and even to improve your memory. And tapping into its power is as simple as turning on your radio.
Whether your choice is jazz, classical, rock 'n' roll, or hip-hop, music has unique effects on the brain, says Dr. Andrew Budson, a lecturer in neurology at Harvard Medical School and chief of cognitive and behavioral neurology at the VA Boston Healthcare System. And you can reap benefits whether you are playing a musical instrument or just kicking back and listening to some tunes.
"From a brain perspective, listening to music can be a very active, rich experience, almost as rich as interacting with another human being," says Dr. Budson.


When you are listening to music, multiple brain regions light up with activity, he says. The lyrics activate the language parts of the brain, but the music also engages parts of the brain related to rhythm and memory.
The same is true when you are playing a musical instrument.
"Remembering how to play music uses a different part of the brain than remembering the grocery list or recalling the trip you took to Europe last summer," says Dr. Budson. It's the part of your brain that stores habit-based memories, like the ones that help you ride a bicycle. "This is why if you used to play piano, or guitar, or violin -- even if you haven't picked up the instrument for 10 years -- if you sit down you can get back into it with only a couple days of practice," he says.
The unique way that musical memories are stored in the brain may explain why people with Alzheimer's disease are sometimes able to remember music, even when other memories elude them.
"Interestingly, some people with Alzheimer's disease can continue to play an instrument even when the dementia has reached a point where they might not be able to recall their grandchild's name," says Dr. Budson.


Another benefit of music is its mood-altering abilities. "It reaches, on a very deep and direct level, the parts of the brain that are involved with different emotions," says Dr. Budson.  Music can be happy or sad, energetic or calming, or multiple things at once. "You can have happy music that is energetic or happy music that is calming," he says. "On the other hand, you can also find sad music that's energetic, or sad music that's low-energy and depressing."
Research shows that the music you choose can alter your mood. Listening to music that is pleasant can make you feel happy.
"Music can also help you remember a happy period in your life, which is helpful as well," says Dr. Budson.


If you are trying to lift your mood, choose music that may start off feeling sad, but then builds to some sort of resolution, says Dr. Budson.
"I would also recommend putting on a piece of music that you know and love that reminds you of good times," he says. "One of the hardest things when you are feeling depressed is to remember what it felt like when you were feeling good. Listening to music can help you recall those good times and feelings."
You can also use music to propel you forward when you are feeling less than inspired. "People can use happy and energetic music to get them motivated and help them perform tasks. I have a playlist that has energetic happy music," says Dr. Budson. "It's the type of music that you want to put on if you are cleaning the house. I also have favorite music that I am only allowed to listen to when exercising -- for example, when I go for a run. I use it as an incentive to exercise, a treat for myself."
Music can also help people connect with one another on an emotional level.
"Unfortunately, I know a lot of people who have lost loved ones to COVID-19. Listening to a piece of music that is sad can sort of capture the way that a friend and I are feeling about a loved one and turn it into a shared experience by listening to it together, even if it's done six feet apart in person or over videoconferencing," says Dr. Budson.


Research also shows that music is able to help with memory, even in people with Alzheimer's disease. Dr. Budson worked as part of the research team on a 2010 study published in Neuropsychologia. It found that people with mild Alzheimer's disease were able to remember lines of lyrics better if the lyrics were sung to them rather than spoken to them. The researchers hoped that this finding would provide a means of helping people with Alzheimer's to remember other information, such as when to take their medication. They did a follow-up study in 2012, also published in Neuropsychologia, that examined whether singing necessary information would help people with Alzheimer's to recall that information more easily. Unfortunately, they found this wasn't the case.
"People were better at being able to remember the fact that they were told something about their medicine, but couldn't remember the specific information, such as the name of the medicine or how to take it. That was too much information for this singing memory strategy," says Dr. Budson.
That said, music can still be a useful memory tool. Although it may not work for people with Alzheimer's, it may for healthy individuals, says Dr. Budson. Try making up a little song-like rhyme for yourself to jog your memory. For example, if you park your car in a multilevel parking garage, you can sing to yourself, 'So I would not be late, I parked on level eight,' says Dr. Budson. This trick can also be used to remember items at the store. 'Before I move my car ahead, I need to remember to pick up bread.'
Music can also help you connect with a friend or family member with dementia. "Music is something that doesn't require memory, something that you can enjoy with your loved one and that they will enjoy throughout the entire course of their illness," says Dr. Budson. "Many people wonder, what do I do with my mom or dad or brother or sister now that they have dementia? You can always enjoy listening to music with them."
If you enjoy music, it can also be a valuable addition to your daily life. Try to incorporate more of it into your day: listen in the car, while you're exercising, or when you're socializing.
"I really do think that music is most powerful in being able to evoke emotions, encouraging us to move our bodies to dance, and to appreciate our time with friends," says Dr. Budson.