While everyone has their own music preferences, there are some songs that almost everyone knows the words to. Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA” is basically the Fourth of July national anthem, and we only need to hear the first few bell chimes to identify Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” on the radio barely two minutes after Thanksgiving, kicking off the holiday season. Behind the music we listen to lies centuries of training, practice, and curiosity. Many people of all ages find themselves attracted to music enough to want to play themselves, as seen by the fact that as many as 66% of Americans have learned to play a musical instrument at some point in their lives [1]. Though learning an instrument may be a simple hobby for some, research suggests there are several notable cognitive advantages to musical training. For instance, learning an instrument can strengthen memory and attention in children and even slow down sound perception decline in adults [2]. Given the profound influence of music, it is clear that the benefits of musical training across all ages are worth exploring further. 

Auditory Processing 

Before learning how musical training impacts the brain, it is useful to understand how the brain processes all ranges of sounds, from Ariana Grande’s high-pitched whistle notes in her song “Imagine” to the low tones of Elvis singing “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” When listening to music or any other auditory stimulus, sound waves vibrate the eardrum, which oscillates a fluid in the inner ear [3]. This movement bends tiny hair cells suspended within the fluid, and consequently generates an electric signal for the brain. These sounds are processed in the auditory cortex in the temporal lobe, which lies behind the ears [3]. 

Once the signal is in the auditory cortex, the sound is broken down into three components: pitch, timing, and timbre [3]. The pitch of a sound is encoded by the frequency with which it vibrates the eardrum: higher frequencies generate faster vibrations and lead to the perception of a higher pitch. The primary, secondary, and tertiary cortices are structures within the auditory cortex that utilize neuron connections to differentiate between frequencies. Because of these perceptions of frequencies, music is organized by pitches into notes, sectioned into octaves. Another component of a sound is the timing: the rhythmic qualities it possesses. The brain’s ability to analyze timing based on sound intervals is crucial for the perception of music, as it allows for distinction between tempo and rhythm differences and activates motor structures utilized in movements like foot tapping and dancing. By processing timing, musicians can coordinate their playing to produce melodies that people enjoy. Lastly, the timbre, which is the character or voicing of a sound, is critical for distinguishing between sounds and is strongly related to tone deafness. While this attribute of sound is less studied, timbre deficits are usually accompanied by pitch perception deficits and, in some cases, the inability to recognize musical instruments [3]. These components of music form a foundation for auditory processing that allows us to not only understand why some songs are so good that, like Taylor Swift, they “never go out of style,” but also the positive impacts musical listening and training can have on the brain.

Short Term Benefits of Music

​​When deciding what music to play in a given situation, people often decide based on the mood they are looking for. For example, one might opt for a fast-paced song like “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars during a workout and then switch to relaxing classical music while studying. These choices reflect more than just one’s mood. Often, music choices are guided by one’s brain activity and its effects on internal chemistry and homeostasis. Once music has been processed in the auditory cortex, signals are delivered to other parts of the brain and engage neurochemical changes known to modulate stress and arousal [4]. Signals from the auditory cortex generated by listening to and processing music are sent to the medulla and pons of the brainstem, which regulate heart rate and blood pressure. The brainstem is at the base of the brain and connects the brain and spinal cord. It regulates most of the body’s automatic functions that are essential for life, so it is quite literally making sure you are “stayin’ alive.” When listening to fast-paced music, activity in these regions rises, increasing heart rate, whereas when listening to relaxing music, heart rate falls [5]. To achieve these fluctuations, the brainstem interprets signals from the auditory cortex that processes whether the music is fast or slow and stimulates the autonomic nervous system, which regulates heart rate accordingly. Therefore, listening to fast-paced music may correlate with stress-induced increases in heart rate and systolic blood pressure [5]. 

Because of the decrease in stress when listening to music, your body is better able to protect itself immunologically. Listening to music has been observed to upregulate serotonin production [6]. While serotonin is released by neurons, it is also produced by immune cells. Serotonin acts as a signaling molecule that helps to regulate immune cell function. Additionally, it can stimulate the production of antibodies by a type of immune cell called B cells, particularly in response to certain types of infection. Several studies have shown that Immunoglobulin A, a type of antibody that acts as a first-line defense mechanism against bacterial infections, is particularly responsive to music. Immunoglobulin A increases following exposure to a range of musical styles in both those who listen and those who play music because serotonin stimulates its production. This is highly beneficial for the immune system because Immunoglobulin A protects against infections, neutralizes toxins, supports the body’s microbiota, and even helps infant development [6]. 

Music also enhances social interactions and is associated with an increased production of oxytocin, which plays a large role in the hypothesized social and health benefits of music. Oxytocin is involved in many aspects of human physiology and behavior. It regulates physiological processes such as childbirth and modulates stress levels to promote social bonding and attachment. Activities involving music such as dancing and marching facilitate feelings of social connection, and initial data demonstrates that oxytocin levels in the blood increased in response to improvised singing [7]. Oxytocin has also been linked to reductions in inflammation and improved cardiovascular health, demonstrating that it is a vital component of human physiology [8]. By stimulating oxytocin production, music has the potential to enhance social interactions and improve overall well-being. 

Beyond oxytocin and serotonin, music increases the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a critical role in regulating motivation, reward, and pleasure, in the brain [4]. Repeating patterns in music, such as looping chord progressions or steady drum patterns, create a sensation of prediction and completion that facilitates dopamine release. Dopamine plays a significant role in the reward system of the brain, which is a complex network of brain structures that are responsible for regulating feelings of pleasure, motivation, and reinforcement. Dopamine mediates the experience of behaviors such as singing along to a song or playing an instrument. The predictive coding model describes how the brain actively processes the melody a person is listening to and predicts the next notes in the melody based on prior experience listening to music [9]. The brain attempts to get as close to the real melody as possible, so the processes underlying music perception and response work in tandem.

Keeping the predictive coding model in mind, it seems that the action of repeatedly practicing a musical piece facilitates dopamine release and associates positive feelings with the music being learned [10]. In fact, the best way to learn a piece of music is likely through coupling practice with listening to the respective piece [11]. A study with 115 piano and guitar students tested four practice methods: listening only, silent playing, no practice, and audio-motor (listening and playing). Errors in performances were recorded. As expected, beginner students produced more errors than the experienced musicians at first sight and in silent motor conditions, the two conditions characterized by a lack of auditory feedback during practice. Additionally, those who practiced with the audio-motor condition had the lowest rate of errors across all error types. Researchers concluded that studying or listening to an unfamiliar piece of music leads to significantly better performance and that musicians with years of practice are more able to use auditory feedback to predict subsequent notes [11]. The predictive coding model describes a positive feedback loop, where your perception of sound constantly changes a prediction, while sensory signals reduce prediction error by utilizing emotion, attention, and motivation to contextualize predictions. 

The combination of repeating patterns in music facilitating dopamine release and the brain's predictive coding model’s role in music perception and response make music a powerful tool for improving playing performance. Further research may elucidate the link between the predictive coding model and muscle memory, as well as how negative experiences such as frustration while practicing a piece alter musical benefits on the brain. As of now, it is evident that the influence of music on reward, stress, immunity, and social behavior is tied to neurochemical changes in dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin mechanisms, respectively, demonstrating the power of music in our lives. 

As neurochemical effects of music are being explored, so are its clinical applications. For example, one effect of listening to music is the mitigation of pain [12]. One study sought to determine how music can help patients undergoing radiofrequency lesioning, a procedure done on those suffering from different types of joint pain. Patients were divided into two groups: music and no-music. Pain levels were measured before and after the procedure using a visual analog scale, a rating scale used in questionnaires to measure subjective characteristics and feelings that cannot be calculated directly. After the experiment, 87% of participants in the music group reported that listening to music was helpful during the procedure [12]. Music listening interventions are already well-researched in other phenomena such as anxiety and nausea, and they demonstrate benefits in various meta-analyses [13]. A meta-analysis is a technique used to combine the results of multiple studies. It is useful in seeing how one trend is not just specific to one set of people but may actually have implications for a larger group. By looking at meta-analyses focused on music interventions for pain, scientists have noted the significant impact of music on patients as well as determined future directions for research.  

Long Term Benefits of Music

Several factors such as age and length of musical training affect how influential music can be on cognitive development. As it turns out, musical training heightens auditory brainstem function during sensitive periods, which are the time windows during development when experiences have lasting effects on the brain and behavior [14]. The auditory brainstem is a nerve that travels from the inner ear to the brainstem. By analyzing electric potentials in the brain, researchers can measure the auditory brainstem response (ABR) to evaluate the functioning of the brainstem pathway. During sensitive periods, the neural circuits corresponding with information processing adapt and consequently change the development and behavior of a person. Even though humans go through many biological changes during puberty, brain sensitivity is unique in that it usually refers to the period between birth and early childhood, when a child’s interests are taking shape as they begin developing hobbies and skills. In a study of over 700 participants, researchers tested how neural processing of sound differs in children with and without musical experience [14]. Participants listened to syllables with a range of high-pitched frequencies followed by a voiced period with lower frequencies and different articulations. ABR was recorded and showed that musicians exhibited heightened ABRs during distinctive periods associated with key developmental change. Furthermore, musicians had greater sensitivity to pitches with high frequencies, leading to heightened ABR activity, demonstrating that musical training improves the ability of children to process sound [14]. These findings have important implications for musicians. Ed Sheeran says “we could change this whole world with a piano. Add a bass, some guitar, grab a beat and away we go.” Even if that doesn’t happen, you’ll at least alter your brainstem.

Music can also greatly affect working memory and attention in children. Working memory is the small amount of information kept for your brain to recall at any time. For example, keeping a math formula in mind while solving a math problem or thinking about an address while driving are ways you may use your working memory in day-to-day activities. Both of these are skills developed at an early age, and the decline in either of these is associated with many neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia [15]. A 2020 study tested the response time and brain activity of children when presented with various stimuli to determine how attention and working memory differ between children with and without musical training [16]. Subjects were presented with both auditory and visual stimuli. Participants were exposed to both stimuli at all times, and were instructed to focus on one or both of them. Using fMRI scans, researchers monitored brain activity. Results showed that musically trained children had higher activation of the frontal lobe, specifically in the inferior frontal gyrus and the supramarginal gyrus, areas of the brain that play roles in the processing of spoken and written language as well as emotional responses. Higher activation in these areas is associated with better memory because the inferior frontal gyrus preserves memories, while the supramarginal gyrus contributes to processing and storing verbal information. Moreover, the behavioral results showed that musically trained children performed better on memory retrieval tasks than those with no musical education [16]. A limitation of this study is that many children are still in the training phase of their lives, and while they may be living their Katy-Perry-inspired “Teenage Dream,” they may not have the same brain changes that adults do. Studies on adults often require many years of musical practice and formal playing due to the length of time needed to create long-lasting neural changes and develop muscle memory. Therefore, results could have been slightly different in another age group. However, other studies on children showed similar results [17]. Together, these studies suggest the beneficial effect of musical training on the brains of children. So if you’re a former band or orchestra kid, be proud of yourself for all the hard work you put into your musical training, as it not only helped you develop your musical skills but also had a positive impact on your brain’s development and cognitive abilities. 

So far, the studies above have mainly focused on children, but adults can also enjoy the bountiful brain benefits of musicianship! Researchers have found that cognitive decline in old age can be reduced through musical training. One Canadian study found that musicians experience less age-related decline in central auditory processing [18]. In this study, the musical abilities of lifelong musicians and people with no musical training were compared. Researchers tested pure-tone thresholds, mistuned harmonic detection, speech-in-noise sensitivity, and gap detection.

- Pure-tone threshold: the softest sound audible to an individual at least 50% of the time
-Mistuned harmonic detection: A harmonic is a sound wave whose frequency is a whole number. Mistuned harmonic detection is the ability to detect when the sound waves form incorrect patterns.
-Speech-in-noise sensitivity: the ability to identify spoken words when background noise is present.
-Gap detection: the ability to perceive a quick interval between sound stimuli.

To qualify as a musician, one had to have started playing music before the age of sixteen, practiced until the day of testing, and had an equivalent of six years of formal training. Results showed no significant effects of musical training on pure-tone thresholds, however, all other variables showed significant differences. Musicians demonstrated a lifelong advantage in detecting a mistuned harmonic and experienced less age-related decline for gap detection and speech-in-noise thresholds [18]. 

Taking all of these results into consideration, researchers suggested that aging can differentially influence central and peripheral stages of auditory processing and that the advantage for musicians was due to enhancement at the central level [18]. This is because the peripheral auditory system, which is mainly composed of the ears, is responsible for capturing sound, whereas central auditory processing, which happens in the auditory nerve and brain, is focused on analyzing sound. Since there was no difference in the pure-tone threshold, researchers concluded that musicians and non-musicians could detect the sound stimuli. However, through the significant differences in mistuned harmonic detection, speech-in-noise sensitivity, and gap detection, the researchers learned that the more complex parts of sounds that are processed in the brain are still properly functioning in older musicians [18]. This could mean that being a musician may contribute to better hearing and sound processing in old age by delaying certain changes in the central auditory system. 

But do these age-related benefits only apply to older people who have been playing since their youth? In the words of Meghan Trainor, “nah to the ah to the no, no, no!” A study from Japan investigated the effects of musical training on adults, specifically in musical novices [19]. Participants were between the ages of 61-85. They were separated into two groups, one being the control group while the other received 4-month instrumental training using a keyboard harmonica. This study also used fMRI scans and cognitive measurements to analyze working memory. Data collected revealed an improvement in verbal memory and neural efficiency in the treatment group. This correlation may be explained by the overlap in brain regions that are responsible for verbal communication and musical training [19]. While the results are correlative and not causal, they indicate that engaging in activities that stimulate neural networks may improve cognitive function in old age. Further testing is necessary for more concrete results, especially given that this study only focused on women, but it is surely a stepping stone in understanding the impacts of music on age. For now, these and other studies suggest that it is never too late to pick up an instrument. 


It is safe to suggest that listening to music and musical training can improve brain function. As discussed in the previous studies, neurochemical changes in the brain influence the functioning of the auditory brainstem, memory and attention of children, and cognitive decline in the elderly. There is still much to study about music’s role in brain development. For example, does the genre of music alter the extent of changes in brain function? Some studies have shown that music can influence language learning and increase a person’s capacity for empathy, which you can read about in Grey Matters articles from Issue 3 and Issue 22, respectively! Learning about the intersection of music and neuroscience is both fascinating and promising for the future, and hopefully one day we will see concrete implications of these studies in the world. But for now, just remember that when you’re listening to music, you can channel your inner Rihanna and “turn the music up.”

Songs referenced: Party in the USA (Miley Cyrus), All I Want For Christmas is You (Mariah Carey), Imagine (Ariana Grande), Can’t Help Falling in Love (Elvis Presley), Style (Taylor Swift), Uptown Funk (Bruno Mars), Stayin’ Alive (Bee Gees), What Do I Know? (Ed Sheeran), Teenage Dream (Katy Perry), NO (Meghan Trainer), and Pon de Replay (Rihanna)


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