8 Ways Music Therapy Transforms the Brain

1. Music activates all areas of the braincoloredbrainareas.png

The brain has the ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life, also known as neuroplasticity.  Because music activates all areas of the brain, music helps create new neural connections to improve language, cognitive, and motor deficits.  Music therapists use music to teach or rehabilitate non-musical skills.  For example, someone with brain damage may lose the ability to speak, but is still able to sing.  Music therapy can ‘re-wire’ the brain using singing to teach the brain how to speak again.

2. Constant melody and rhythm calms the brain

trebleclefThe brain likes structure and prediction.  Think about the pop music you enjoy.  It is repetitive, predictive, and structured; it has a clear beginning, middle and end.  The calming effect of music on the brain is particularly important to people who have difficulty interpreting sensory information (sight, sound, touch, smell, balance, muscle/joint information).   If the brain incorrectly interprets sensory information, also known as sensory processing disorder, the world appears to be a scary place.  Sounds could be painfully loud, it could be difficult to maintain balance, or to plan how to make basic motor movements such as walking.   These type of difficulties cause the brain to often be in panic and resort to fight-or-flight mode.  If the brain is in fight-or-flight mode, higher cognition thought cannot take place.  Constant melody and rhythm can help people integrate sensory information and create a safe environment.  For clients with ASD and ADHD,  music encourages relaxation, self-regulation, reduces hyperactivity, improves attention, and coping with change.

3. Music organizes information making it easier to remember conceptchart

Learning lyrics in a song often comes naturally.  For example, most people can sing the alphabet song or even recall Jenny’s phone number, 867-5309.  The question is why do humans remember countless lyrics to songs years later, but remembering basic history or math facts from school is a struggle?  The answer is simple….

Music creates an experience that is optimal for the brain to learn!  

a)The brain more easily remembers patterns . Think of phone numbers. We separate information into groups: (123) 456 -7899. Music naturally creates grouping patterns.

b) The brain can more easily recall information that is emotional and memorable.  As information enters the brain, information is tagged as important or not as important.  Information that is emotional is automatically tagged as more important.  That is why it is easy to remember things that evoke happiness, fear, or anger.  Music makes us emotional.

c)The brain likes repetition.  Simply put, the more we hear information the more likely we will remember it.  Music therapists create simple songs that repeat the important information over and over in a fun way.

4. The brain automatically entrains to rhythm which organizes and coordinates movement


Rhythm and beats organize our life.  In fact, the brain anticipates the next beat and this pulse can be seen in brain scans.  Whenever a rhythm is heard, the motor systems naturally match the beat.  This is called entrainment.  For example, when listening to music while walking, people will naturally walk to the beat.  At a rock concert, the entire crowd will naturally clap to the same beat.

The coordination of movement is controlled by lower brain areas and then that information is sent to the spinal cord to complete motor movements.  When a person listens to music, some of that input is directly sent to motor nerves in the spinal cord that allows our muscles to move to the rhythm without even ‘thinking’ about it.  This is why music therapists use music to ‘re-teach’ the brain movements such as walking, finger movements, and coordination between each side of the body.  Music therapists work with people with stroke, traumatic brain injury, or autism spectrum disorder to improve movement.

5. Singing and speaking share parallel brain activation

singing girl.jpgListening and singing lyrical music shares neural circuits with listening and expressing speech. However, music is also processed in many other areas of the brain. A person with a traumatic brain injury may lose the ability to speak, but is still able to sing because of the many areas music is processed.  Music therapists use musical elements such as rhythm, meter, and melodic contour to teach or re-teach speech and language skills.

6. Music stimulates rewar centers in the brain

treasure-160004_1280Music stimulates reward centers in the brain releasing positive emotions and moods. Dopamine is released during music listening and acts as a reward and reinforcement for appropriate responses.  This type of reward is used to improve mood, behavior, and attention. Music therapists use preferred music to create music tasks that have emotional impact and is motivating for clients! When information has an emotional impact, the brain tags that information as important making it easier to learn and recall.

7. Music captures attention

dancejpgWhen listening to music, attention and predication systems are automatically activated in the brain. With the additional motivational and emotional factors of music, music encourages concentration and on-task behavior.  Singing instructions or information increases arousal and is easier to process than speech alone for individuals with disabilities.  Music grabs and holds attention, even for  those who cannot attend to much else.  This allows music therapists to target attention and impulse control goals.  For example, music therapists use musical attention control exercises to improve sustained, shifting, selective, and executive attention.

8. Music evokes a physiological response

Music affects heart-rate, breathing, and blood-pressure.  Music therapists use music to increase or decrease arousal of clients or help someone relax.  A music therapist who works in the medical field may use music to increase/decrease heart-rate, breathing, and blood-pressure in premature infants or to decrease pain in medical procedures.