Ever felt better after listening to music? Maybe it calmed you down, helped you sleep, study, or exercise better. It may even have eased your pain. Have you ever wondered why?

When magnetic response imaging (MRI) for the brain was first introduced, it was easy to see which areas of the brain are activated when music is heard and played. The auditory cortex gets going with processing pitch, rhythm, and melody. A part of the cerebrum brings up images associated with the sounds. The cerebellum will help you to move to the music or tap your fingers, if you feel so inclined. Watch the fascinating video here (4 minutes) where you can see MRI imaging at work and how the late Dr. Oliver Sacks’ brain reacted to Bach and Beethoven.

The brain is a highly complex organ and not yet fully understood. It is the control center for managing our behavior, mood, emotions, breathing, bodily functions, and mental processing. Music has been shown to have mostly a positive effect on the brain. Here are some ways that music can improve our quality of life for the better.

Music may help to ease pain

“One good thing about music, is when it hits you, you feel no pain.” — Bob Marley

Imagine getting a painful shock in your fingers from a burn or a cut. Researchers at the University of Utah did that to 143 people while they were listening to music. They were asked to focus on the music and as they became more engrossed in the music, their pain became more bearable. You can read about more studies in this article: A Dose of Music for Pain Relief.

A study done at the University of Central Florida showed that music provided a significant reduction in pain when patients had to face walking again after surgery. Most research now suggests that music is effective in diverting or lessening pain signals before they get to the brain. This is useful to remember the next time you have headache or toothache – just turn on some of your favorite music.

Music may relieve stress and anxiety

“We’ve found compelling evidence that musical interventions can play a health care role in settings ranging from operating rooms to family clinics.” — Prof. Levitin, McGill University Psychology Department

Research has homed in on how music can help to lower blood pressure and reduce stress. Studies have concentrated on patients who were about to undergo surgery. Music is often more effective in reducing stress than prescription drugs in these cases.

Patients who are in palliative care often have to face severe pain and deal with end of life issues. The staff at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in Singapore did lots of live music therapy for their patients. They took part in singing, playing musical instruments, and song writing. Patients were much calmer and less stressed, they found.

If you have neglected to use music for relaxation and stress management, go for some quiet classical music.

Music can help prevent mental decline

Frank Iacono is 103 and still plays the violin! He is an active member of the Providence Civic Orchestra. He believes that music has been one of the keys to his longevity. The secret is that both playing and listening to music involves many brain networks. But musicians who still play have an extra advantage in that they have to do some pretty fast mental processing to produce the music. This keeps the brain active and helps to stop mental decline. This is yet another example of the power of music and how it keeps us mentally active and engaged.

“Our study shows that even moderate levels of musical activity can benefit brain functioning.” — Ines Jentzsch, University of St. Andrews, Scotland

Music can lift your mood

Yuna Ferguson led a team of researchers at the University of Missouri in showing how music can lift mood and depression. They discovered that just by listening to upbeat music for a period of two weeks, patients reported an increase in happiness. Experts believe that music helps to generate dopamine, which is known as the feel-good chemical.

“There’s just something about music — particularly live music — that excites and activates the body.” — Joanne Loewy, co-editor of Music and Medicine

While nobody understands exactly how music works on the brain, the take-home message for all of us is to make use of a therapy which is almost free, has no side effects, and can be used anywhere and at any time.

Time to reach for your headphones and get started!

Featured photo credit: cesk freixas:avui serem el món/Lali Masriera via flickr.com

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