Music to my Ears…Or to my Mind?

Anne Moorhouse discusses the impact that music has on the human brain, and how we can use it as a means of healing

Image(s): cnn.com


Whether it’s Stormzy, Lady Gaga, or the Beatles, most teenagers will be looking for their Pop playlist when it comes to music choice. Admittedly, the prospect of a 10k run whilst listening to Max Richter’s Sleep or one of Chopin’s Waltzes is most definitely sufficient to lure you back into bed. Somehow, I am unable to envision the usual Friday night queues for a 601 Bop if Mozart’s Requiem was on the menu. However, the next time you’re making a cake, settling down with a hearty brew or, as you will hopefully see, looking to gain those few extra marks on that essay, let me convince you that classical music is just what the doctor ordered.

  1. Therapeutic

I recently came across a BBC news article entitled ‘Madrid police dogs get ‘Mozart Effect’ music therapy’. The term ‘Mozart Effect’ came about in 1991 and was swiftly popularised in the media, with parents rushing to buy CDs of Mozart’s music to play to their children. Sparking extensive psychological research, the implication is that if young children, specifically babies, listen to such music they will become more intelligent, subsequent to an improvement in the cognitive activity known as ‘spatial-temporal reasoning’. The author of this article explained how, due to the stressful nature of the dogs’ duties, Madrid’s police force ‘em-bark-ed’ on a musical recovery scheme designed to restore the animal’s sense of calm. Several times a day, the dogs listened to music by Mozart, in particular, that of his Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major (K448). Indeed, according to a study carried out by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), this piece of music has been proven to reduce the frequency of seizures experienced by people suffering from epilepsy. Not only did this result in increased relaxation and a sense of calm, but the dogs displayed improved performance in their tasks. Similarly, the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour produced a study in 2012 demonstrating the effects of different musical genres on animal behaviour. They found that, by contrast to pop or rap music, exposure to classical music resulted in the dogs sleeping for longer and spending less time vocalising. The effects on humans are no different. This meditative process is completely rehabilitating, proving to reduce blood pressure. Mothers will be forever in reverence of Brahms for his Lullaby – and you wonder why no one has opted for Katy Perry’s Roar to get their screaming baby to pipe down.

  1. Memory and Concentration

Music is a critical part of many school curricula. Having played in several orchestras, choirs, and ensembles, music was indeed essential to my time at school. Playing an instrument and being part of an ensemble develops highly important and transferable skills. In learning to play an instrument, one subsequently learns to read music – this is cognitive dynamite. This mental workout fully activates the brain, arousing our visual and auditory senses. Such a visceral experience nourishes the brain and has been proven to enhance children’s performances at school – interlinking with subjects such as Maths, music is incredibly cross-curricular. Not only developing group skills, but performing a piece of music to an audience is one of the surest ways to improve confidence and if played without music, memory. The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease suggested that regular listening to such music acts as a preventative of dementia. Many children and, indeed, adults often struggle with concentration; stimulating both hemispheres of the brain, having to play and read music boosts such a vital skill. These abilities involving listening, concentration, and group collaboration are applicable and necessary for most jobs; by developing them from the outset, you are paving the way for the highest chances of success in the future.

  1. Health benefits – Autism

Our understanding of this condition has vastly improved in the past decade and, subsequently, ideas of how to combat the associated difficulties with learning have broadened. Having tutored for the company Explore Learning, my awareness of the vast array of methods used by children and teachers alike when confronting educational material has been significantly heightened. Several of the children were autistic and, depending on their needs, I had to adapt my style of teaching. With so many forms and symptoms of the condition, several studies have been executed to test the effects of classical music on the learning abilities of children with autism. The findings have been extremely positive; when exposed to classical music, autistic children were able to concentrate for longer and responded to the set material in an improved manner. By comparing the impact of the same music on neurotypical children and those with autism, the research demonstrated that classical music affects the same part of the brain for both, irrespective of the symptoms experienced by autistic children. Classical music has a notable calming effect on autistic children and has been seen to have a transformative impact on their behavioural and social skills. For those suffering from symptoms connected with speech, listening to classical music has become a confirmed method of verbal therapy; being slower to develop communicative skills, such music is often a means of achieving this type of interaction. This offers children the opportunity to express themselves when a verbal display of emotion otherwise fails them.

  1. Health benefits – Dementia

The renowned Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant opined that music is the “quickening art”. This encapsulates the transcendental power of music on the brain, going beyond illnesses such as dementia or Alzheimer’s in restoring otherwise lost memory and, for a short while, resurrecting the past self. Music ‘quickens’ the person in such a way that, for elderly people who seem beyond help, they are rejuvenated and animated through familiar melodies. Music has the capacity to touch the part of the brain that is unaffected by dementia. This provides a brief ‘cure’ to the illness since, when listening to music from their past, the person subsequently associates the sounds with connected memories – where they heard it, who they heard it with, and so on. Music, therefore, provides the vital connecting link through to their past with other people. Some patients are unable to comprehend or communicate verbally. Music provides the ultimate opportunity and an alternative to medication. The soothing effects of classical music in particular have been argued as the most important in alleviating symptoms of frustration and anxiety for those suffering from dementia. Pioneered by the Utley Foundation, ‘Music for Dementia 2020’ is a campaign ensuring that all patients have full access to music. This involves providing playlists, means of listening to music and offering music therapy. Alzheimer’s Research UK estimates that 850,000 people in the UK have dementia. Schemes such as ‘Music for Dementia’ and broadening the awareness of music therapy are hugely important in fighting the illness and rebuilding the bridges between families and friends.

The transformative, uplifting, and beneficial effects of music for all ages cannot be overstated. While different moods and settings require different musical genres, I would encourage you to broaden your musical palette, if you have not already done so, to classical music. The truly enriching mental impact will fulfill and last you a lifetime.