The Mind

A violin

You know the old cliché is you express with music what you can’t express with just words. But yet, if we had to use words, what words would we use to describe what music actually does?
—Rich, The Philadelphia Orchestra

The benefits of music on the mind and body have been recognized since the days of the great Greek philosophers. According to Plato, music “gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything.”

Today, researchers and scientists continue to explore how music affects emotions, intelligence and physical well-being. Read about some of the ways music is being used to improve and enrich the way we think, feel and relate to the world.

Two bongo drums, side by side

Music and Healing

I came from a family that wasn’t that comfortable expressing different emotions, and here was a different language that was acceptable… I could really pour my feeling into that.
—Betsy, The Philadelphia Orchestra

What is music therapy? From listening to and playing music to creating and talking about it, music therapy is used to boost individuals’ physical and mental well-being. Different styles of music may be used to elevate patients’ moods, offset depression, promote movement for physical rehabilitation, counteract fear and apprehension and relax muscle tension.

The discipline of music therapy began after World War II, when amateur and professional community musicians played for recovering soldiers in veterans’ hospitals around the U.S. The patients' notable physical and emotional responses to music led the doctors and nurses to request the hiring of musicians by the hospitals.

The first music therapy degree program in the world was founded at Michigan State University in 1944. The American Music Therapy Association was founded in 1998 as a union of the National Association for Music Therapy and the American Association for Music Therapy.

Practitioners may use music therapy to address mental health issues such as depression; improve developmental and learning disabilities; counteract the effects of Alzheimer’s and other age-related conditions; treat substance abuse problems; and rehabilitate those who suffer from brain injuries, physical disabilities and acute and chronic pain.

Understanding how the brain processes music has given researchers significant insight into the processing of other complex auditory stimuli, like language. This knowledge has the potential to help children with language disorders and patients who have lost their use of language as a result of stroke or head trauma.

According to the New York-based Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, music also appears to animate and organize brain activity and can help caregivers and doctors communicate with patients, including those suffering from amnesia and various memory problems who may be unresponsive to speech.

Side view of Albert Einstein standing while playing the violin looking at sheet music, his hair partially grey, his moustache dark.
Albert Einstein played the violin and took a life-long interest in the arts and music

Music and Intelligence

Taking music lessons or simply listening to music can enhance spatial intelligence, or the ability to perceive the visual world accurately, form mental images of physical objects and recognize variations of objects. Spatial reasoning is crucial for higher brain functions such as music, complex mathematics, science and chess.

In 1993, psychologist Frances Rauscher, a former concert cellist, and neuroscientist Gordon Shaw published a study which found that listening to ten minutes of a Mozart piano sonata increased spatial IQ scores in college students. While researchers have failed to replicate the findings of this particular study, a number of other studies have illustrated a link between music and intelligence.

A 1997 study by Rauscher and Shaw revealed that preschoolers who studied piano performed 34 percent better in spatial and temporal reasoning ability than preschoolers who spent the same amount of time learning to use computers. Preschoolers who took singing and keyboard lessons scored 80 percent higher on puzzle tests than students at the same preschool who did not have music lessons.

According to a November 2005 study by Stanford University, musical training improves how the brain processes the spoken word, a finding that researchers say could lead to improving the reading ability of children with dyslexia and other reading problems.

A small girl and woman sit on the floor, the woman plays guitar as the child watches intently
A girl with Down's Syndrome enjoys
music therapy
Courtesy of Maria de Fatima

Music and Well-Being

Many researchers believe that music has the power to strengthen the mind, heal the body and unlock creativity.

In 2001, neurologist Barry Bittman published a study in Alternative Therapies that suggested that beating a drum for one hour in a group with others who are keeping the same beat enhances the immune system and reduces stress. This study showed that drumming in a circle with others can cause positive changes at the cellular level that may fight off cancer and viral illnesses.

Other studies have illustrated how music can influence heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, pain perception and physical health and well-being. According to a 1992 study, at-risk children who participated in an arts program that included music showed significant increases in self-esteem.

According to a January 2006 story in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the potential for music to have a calming effect on the mind and body prompted the administration of a new elementary school in the city to request that the building be equipped with a state-of-the-art sound system. Now, classical music is piped into hallways and other spaces—although not into classrooms—at various volumes.

“We have it playing throughout the school day," school Principal Roger Chamberlain told the Post Dispatch. "In the library, the gymnasium, the locker rooms, the restrooms—all the time.

“It's something we do to set the tone in the building," Chamberlain said. "To me, it's controlling the sense of calm, especially with kids at this age level."

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