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The Cognitive Benefits of Music: Understanding the Impact on the Brain

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Can Music Really Impact Your Well-Being and Cognitive Function?

Music has always had a profound effect on our emotions and moods. It has the power to uplift our spirits, evoke memories, and even bring us to tears. But can music go beyond its emotional impact and actually affect our well-being, learning, cognitive function, quality of life, and happiness? A recent survey conducted by AARP delved into this topic, revealing some fascinating findings.

The Impact of Music on Mental Well-Being

According to the survey, individuals who regularly listen to music reported higher scores for mental well-being. They also showed slightly reduced levels of anxiety and depression compared to the overall population. This suggests that music can contribute to our overall mental health and emotional balance.

Music and Brain Health

Interestingly, the survey found that those who currently attend musical performances rated their brain health significantly higher than those who attended in the past or never attended. This indicates that actively engaging with music can have a positive impact on brain health, particularly in terms of cognitive function and emotional well-being.

An additional noteworthy finding was that individuals who were frequently exposed to music during their childhood years had higher ratings for their ability to learn new things. This implies that early music exposure can enhance cognitive abilities and make learning easier in adulthood.

The Power of Active Musical Engagement

The survey also revealed that individuals of all ages, including those over 50, who actively engage with music experienced higher rates of happiness and good cognitive function. This suggests that actively participating in music, such as playing an instrument or singing, can contribute to overall well-being and cognitive vitality.

Interestingly, even adults with no early music exposure but who currently engage in music appreciation displayed above-average mental well-being scores. This demonstrates that it is never too late to derive the benefits of music in terms of emotional and cognitive well-being.

An In-Depth Look at the Study

The results of the AARP survey are undeniably compelling. However, it is important to consider the limitations of this 20-minute online survey. The sample size consisted of 3,185 US adults aged 18 and older, which may not be fully representative of the entire population. It is crucial to approach these findings as opinions rather than objective measures of brain health.

There was no objective assessment of brain health, such as MRI scans or cognitive tests, to support participants' self-reported ratings. Additionally, the survey only establishes correlations and does not provide causation. Therefore, it is uncertain whether exposure to music during childhood directly leads to improved learning abilities, or if other factors such as socioeconomic status play a role.

The Science Behind Music's Effects on the Brain

While the exact mechanisms are not fully understood, studies in cognitive neuroscience have shed light on some potential explanations for the powerful effects of music on the brain.

Activation of Diverse Brain Networks

Music has been found to activate various regions of the brain, extending beyond just the auditory cortex. Emotion-related areas become activated and even synchronized during emotional music, and memory regions are also engaged. Surprisingly, music even activates the motor system, allowing us to instinctively grasp the rhythm before we start moving to it.

Use It or Lose It

Neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to change and adapt, reinforces the importance of regularly using neural pathways and networks. Music, by activating numerous brain regions and networks, helps keep them strong and resilient. This can positively impact well-being, learning, cognitive function, quality of life, and happiness. Neglected pathways can weaken over time as the brain reallocates resources elsewhere, leading to declines in various abilities.

Maximizing the Benefits of Music

Integrating music into your life is a simple yet powerful way to reap its benefits. While actively listening to music has shown the strongest brain benefits, even background music can be beneficial. Music has the ability to lift your mood or energize you, depending on the tempo. Combining music with aerobic and social activities, such as dancing, further enhances its impact on your health. Virtual activities can also offer these benefits, particularly in times of social distancing.


The AARP survey highlighted the potential of music to positively influence our well-being, cognitive function, and overall quality of life. While the survey's limitations should be acknowledged, the findings align with what we know about the impact of music on the brain. Music's ability to activate numerous brain networks and strengthen pathways offers a promising avenue for enhancing mental and emotional well-being. So, turn up the music and let its power enhance your life.

William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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