Is Playing Music Beneficial to the Brain?

We have all heard the phrase “music makes you smarter” but were you aware that music can help to quiet a disorganized brain?

So How Is Playing Music Beneficial to the Brain? The rhythm and mathematical structure found within music gives the brain something to hang onto. The working memory part of the brain instinctively looks for patters to combat fatigue and overwhelm that can happen with white noise that has no patterns. It is this structure and patterns that bring quiet to an overwhelmed and disorganized brain.

Music has many elements, the basic of which is beat or pulse. This primal language speaks to our brains and bodies as it is the first thing to develop in the womb – our pulse and heartbeat.

Rhythm Is Part of Who We Are

Pulse develops in a fetus usually between 21 – 28 days after conception, or 35 – 45 days after the last period. Even though the heart is not fully developed at that point (and won’t be until a week 10), a heartbeat can be detected by an transvaginal ultrasound.

At this point, the heartbeat is very fast, around 160 – 180 beats per minute, later slowing to 110 – 160.

So steady beat/pulse is with us from the very beginning. This steady, unchanging beat is different to rhythm. It is steady and unchanging, it is primal and something everyone can feel in their very core. It is something the brain notices and our whole bodies can feel and attune to.

Rhythm is with us in many parts of our lives without us realizing it. People are innately musical and we perform complex, rhythmic tasks everyday with ease. These include:

  • Walking
  • Running
  • Brushing our teeth
  • Speech
  • Playing sport
  • Singing

Think about walking. Witnessing my brother taking his first step after an acquired brain injury really highlighted for me just what a complex rhythmical action this is. We do it without thinking, and usually while talking. Sometimes we even run and speak at the same time. Each individually are a complex progression of movements to a specific rhythm, and when we combine two actions with different rhythms flawlessly, that is a complex rhythm accomplishment.

Get our course Using Music To Calm the Brain

Check it out here to see what it entails.

Module 2 is also available. See them both on our Online Training page

You will have a specific rhythm when brushing your teeth. You will do it the same way each day in a pattern and rhythm that you will not be consciously aware of. These rhythmic movements and others like swimming or biking are possible because of something called central pattern generators (CPGs). Simply put, CPGs are brain circuits that produce rhythmic outputs without being driven by external stimuli. We manage the rhythmic patterns internally.

Rhythm is all around us and in us. It is a part of who we are. Our circadian rhythms are connected to the rhythm of the rising and setting of the sun. Heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, depression, cancer, insomnia, obesity, diabetes, dementia, migraines and accidents all have been linked to disruptions in circadian rhythms.

The way a newborn breastfeeds is tied strongly to rhythm. In fact, when a newborn baby doesn’t feed well, it is a sign to me that their internal rhythm may have been disrupted.

People are innately musical and we perform complex, rhythmic tasks everyday with ease.


We Recognize Rhythm & Pitch Before We Are Born

For a newborn, they have just come from a home that is filled with music. The rhythm of the mother’s heartbeat, her breathing, the lyrical pitch and rhythm of her voice.

They arrive with immature auditory filters in place to a world with lots of sound, much of it white noise without rhythm such as air conditioners, traffic, fluorescent lights, motors such as fridges, freezers, microwaves etc.

The brain is adept at recognizing and processing patterns, even complex patterns. According to research, newborns can tell the different between their mother’s voice and a voice that is not their mothers. There is even evidence that a fetus prefers the mother’s voice before they are born.

Music, Patterns and the Brain

Music is full of patterns. It gives the brain something to hang onto. We live in a world with sound that has no patterns and white noise can be exhausting, particularly for babies. Music is filled with rhythm, steady beat, pitch patterns, rhythmic organization that the brain can recognize and relate to. With noise in our environment (such as white noise) without all that, the brain is busy searching endlessly for patterns that do not exist. This leads to exhaustion and stress.

Think about long haul flights. The constant sound of the engine puts our brain into overdrive trying to find patterns in the sound. Even if you sleep, it doesn’t stop as our auditory system cannot shut down. You get off the plane feeling exhausted, even if you have slept. Wearing noise cancelling headphones and playing music allows the brain to be in a more rested stated than just sitting in the plane without intervention.

One of our 12 essential auditory skills that aids the brain in recognizing and utilizing these patterns in music is auditory memory. This skill enables us to seek out patterns and group things together which is less taxing on the brain and frees it up for other functions.

Imagine this as lots of information coming in through the ears and skeletal system. Think of it as music, with each dot representing a note.

For our brains to process each sound individually is time consuming and taxing as it works hard to decipher what it is hearing.

That’s 12 pieces of information in the second or two that the music is playing, especially as many notes are played at the same time.

But if the brain is able to recognize patterns and group things as it processes these patterns, it now only has 3 pieces of information to process (3 groups) rather than 12 individual pieces of sound.

This is more efficient, time saving and less exhausting.

But music is much more than individual notes play together or separately. Let’s take the pitch (the notes) and rhythm. That’s 2 different pieces of information at the same time.

This equates to 24 pieces of information that the brain has to process in a very short amount of time (number of items and color for each one).

When the brain looks at multifaceted information, the more patterns it can find, the easier it is to process the information.

Here we see only 3 pieces of information (3 groups) even though it had twice the amount of information to process.

If these patterns are repeated, like they often are in music, then all the easier for the brain to recognize and process information.

Music Provides Structure for the Brain

There are many reasons why music is beneficial to the brain and how it creates connections. Auditory memory, as we have just discussed, and looking for patterns is just one way.

It is no coincidence that when involved with music (whether listening or playing an instrument), all the areas of the brain light up.

In our Using Music to Calm the Brain course (modules 1 and 2) you will learn why that is, and how facets of music relate to specific areas of the brain.

You will also learn how to provide an environment where brain connections can form and become strong.

Think about some of the things music can do:

  • Evokes emotion and memories
  • Has intricate, complicated patterns which help to develop new brain connections in various parts of the brain
  • Songs with words help our language centers
  • Relates to our movement centers in the brain (there is a reason “music and movement” go together)
  • Can help seizures
  • Can assist in repairing brain damage
  • Boosts your immune system
  • Changes your ability to perceive time
  • Helps with spatial awareness
  • Lifts mood
  • Increases speech and reading abilities

Get our course Using Music To Calm the Brain

Check it out here to see what it entails.

Module 2 is also available. See them both on our Online Training page

What Type of Music is Best?

We have all heard about the “Mozart Effect” where researchers believed that playing Mozart to your baby made them smarter. This is not entirely accurate or as one sided as it seems.

All music has patterns and repetition, but some music is structured more traditionally than others. Bach and the baroque era had concertos and sonatas. Mozart and the classical period have the Alberti bass and predictable chord structures. Blues have repeatable chord structures and rock and roll has repeatable rifts.

Research indicates, according to world-renowned violinist Ayako Yonetani and neuroscientist Dr Kiminobu Sugaya’s work, our brains like the type of music that appeals to us.

There are many other factors (too many to go into here) that contribute to what type of music is best for your baby. It also depends on what you want the music to achieve. Do you want it for soothing or sleeping? Do you want them playful and energized? Read my article about different properties of music and which is best for different outcomes.

The of the most asked questions I get is “what type of music should I play when my baby goes to sleep?”

Here are some things to consider with some (but not all) types of music if looking for soothing/sleep time music:

Type of MusicPositivesCan it Be Played At Bedtime?
Baroque (Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Purcell)Well-structured form as well as repetition of patternsYes, but choose slower pieces rather than boisterous ones
Classical (Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin)Alberti Bass, predictable structures and repetition of phrases and rhythms Yes, but choose slower pieces rather than boisterous ones
Romantic Period (Schumann, Brahms, Sibelius)Evokes emotion which in turn evokes memory Yes, but choose slower pieces rather than boisterous ones
Hip HopRepeatable rhythms and patternsThis would not be soothing but have a more energizing effect on the brain
Jazz/BluesStrong underlying chord progressions and rhythm patterns Yes, but choose slower pieces rather than boisterous ones
Rock & Roll (Beetles etc)Traditional rock and roll has repeating stanzas and melodic/rhythmic passagesNo
Heavy Metal/Punk MusicNot the best choice for playing to a child. Their brains will learn more from other sorts of music at an early age.No
Orchestral MusicA variety of tones from very high (strings which stimulate the speech centers of the brain) to very low (timpani which resonates throughout our skeletal structure) Yes, but choose slower pieces rather than boisterous ones
Celtic Music/Ethnic musicDifferent structures to Western music and is beneficial for speech and auditory discrimination. The wider variety of music a child is exposed to, the better grasp they have on speech. Different structures and tones provide a wider “auditory diet” for your child Yes, but choose slower pieces rather than boisterous ones
Folk Songs & MusicBeautifully structured with repeating patterns in both the words and the music. Lots for the brain to hang onto with this type of musicYes
Nursery RhymesLots of patterns that are predictable and repeated. Stimulates language and auditory skillsYes
SingingWhether to music or acapella (just the voice with no musical backing) singing is a wonderful way to soothe a tired brainYes – especially if a parent or loved one is singing to them
Musical TheatreRepetition of phrases and melodic tunes. Words aids speech and language centers of the brainNo – unless they were slower, soothing pieces. Musical theatre tends to be more energizing than soothing
White Noise MachineNone – there are no patterns present and although a child might sleep with this going, it is making the brain work harder so they will not have restful sleep. If it has a rhythm (like waves on a beach) then that is fine as there is a pattern to that.No
Country MusicPatterns within harmonies, pitch, rhythm and words. Yes, but choose slower pieces rather than boisterous ones
SoundtracksThere are some great soundtracks to movies with music that would absolutely be great for bedtime. Yes, but choose soothing pieces rather than tension creating ones
LullabiesPredictable falling melodic patterns and slower beats that encourage brains to slow down and relaxYes

Important Things to Remember

  • A child’s auditory system (especially their filtration and auditory skills) are still developing so don’t play music too loudly
  • Never play through headphones on a child under 2 years of age and make sure you control the volume if children ever do have headphones.
  • Variety is key. The wider the variety, the wider the musical diet you are giving your child’s auditory system. You wouldn’t want to live on the same food everyday forever would you? Our auditory system needs variety as well.
  • Watch very strong music with lots of loud outbursts
  • Music that contains patterns is the best you can do for your child (and you). If you can feel some sort of beat, it has a pattern.
  • White noise exhausts the brain because it is constantly searching for patterns that don’t exist.

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