Music promises many benefits, but can it be backed by science? Find out in our review of the scientific literature on the benefits of music.
As a lifelong music lover and practicing musician, I’ve long known the many and myriad benefits of music.
What can be felt and what can be proven, however, aren’t always the same. You might feel that music helps you relax, get excited, become happy or sad. But does the science agree?
This was the premise of this article: what is the scientific consensus on the benefits of music?
To find an answer, I scoured through contemporary scientific literature on the effects of music on the body and the mind.
Here’s what I discovered:
It's no secret that music makes makes you feel good. It also amplifies your existing emotional state. It turns happiness into euphoria, sadness into melancholy.
But can listening to music leave a tangible impact on your stress levels? Can it speed up recovery or change how you deal with work and mishaps?
To find out, I looked at the latest scientific literature on the link between music and stress.
In a study published in PLoS One, 60 women (average age = 25) were randomly assigned to three groups:
The second group was made to listen to the sound of rippling water, i.e. nature sounds.
The third group did not have any music to listen to.
Afterward, the three groups were scored on standardized psychosocial stress tests. This included testing their cortisol levels (the ‘stress hormone’), heart rate, and breathing.
The study found that:
Cortisol response was highest in the group that listened to Miserere Mei, lowest in the group that listened to nature sounds.
Cortisol returned to baseline values the fastest in the nature sounds group, even faster than the group that didn’t listen to anything.
Soothing music has the biggest impact on stress, followed by listening to nature sounds. However, not listening to any music brings down stress to normal levels faster than listening to nature sounds.
Ergo, if you want to relax, listen to good music, not nature sounds.
It’s no secret that undergoing any surgical procedure is an anxiety-ridden experience.
But evidence suggests that listening to calming music before the surgery can reduce anxiety levels.
In a study published in the AORN journal of pre-operative surgery, 33 patients waiting in the holding area before surgical operations were assigned to two groups:
Group 1 was made to listen to soothing music played on a cassette player in the holding area.
Group 2 waited in silence in the holding area.
After a 20-minute period, an evaluation of the patients’ blood pressure, breathing, and pulse concluded that breathing rates were significantly lower in the group that listened to music.
Surprisingly, blood pressure remained the same in both the groups.
A similar study3 performed on patients undergoing coronary angiography found that patients who listened to 20 minutes of music showed:
Lower state anxiety
For patients about to undergo surgery or any intensive, anxiety-inducing experience, listening to music can help bring calmness.
Nurses, firefighters, cops, and other high-risk professions experience considerable stress while doing their jobs. Stress not only makes the job more difficult, but also makes it difficult to work effectively.
A study on first-line nurses found that listening to music can significantly lower stress indicators, much more than simply ‘resting’.
In the study, 54 first-line nurses were randomly divided into two groups. The first group listening to self-selected music via headphones for 30-minutes. The other group simply rested in a chair for the duration.
After the 30-minute period, the researchers tested the nurses’ stress indicators and found that the nurses who listened to music:
Had lower cortisol levels, heart rate, and blood pressure than the chair- rest group.
Had higher finger temperature, indicating better blood circulation.
More significantly, the study found that nurses who listened to music of their preference had a bigger reduction in all these stress indicators.
If you’re in a high-stress job - such as nursing - consider using music as a scientifically-proven stress reduction tactic.
Placing patients on mechanical ventilation has a steep psychological and physiological cost. Mechanical ventilation is so stressful on the body that patients usually have to be placed on expensive and sometimes, even dangerous sedatives.
One study published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing attempted to find ways to reduce anxiety and discomfort in such patients.
In the study, 64 patients on mechanical patients were divided into two groups. The first group was made to listen to 30 minutes of music. The other group was given a 30-minute rest period without any music. The patients' satisfaction with the music was also verified.
After the 30-minute period, the patients' stress response was tested using the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory Test (SAIT).
The study found that people who listened to music while on mechanical ventilation showed reduced stress responses, lower cortisol levels, and reduced outward indicators of anxiety.
For people undergoing difficult medical procedures, listening to music during or after the procedure can be an effective relaxation technique.
Music has been used as a learning tool since time immemorial. I personally use music as a concentration tool - putting on some Nujabes is almost like a trigger for productivity.
As the scientific literature shows, listening to music or learning a musical instrument can improve memory, increase retention, and help you concentrate better:
Can music make you smarter?
There have long been stories - anecdotal and historical - about the effects of music on brain performance. But in 1993, a group of University of Wisconsin researchers put these stories to test.
In the study, 36 college students were given three sets of standard IQ spatial reasoning tasks. Before each task, the students were made to hear, in order:
A Mozart piece (sonata for two pianos in D major)
A relaxation tape
When their performance was evaluated following this exercise, the researchers found some surprising results:
Students who listened to silence had a mean standard age score (SAS) of 54.00
Students who listened to the relaxation tape had a SAS of 54.61
Students who listened to Mozart had a SAS of 57.56
That is, listening to Mozart boosted cognitive performance by nearly 7% in just 10 minutes.
This has long been called the "Mozart effect" and has been proven to be true in other studies.
The study did find that the effect is temporary, lasting only 10-15 minutes. But it is significant and noticeable enough for me to say that yes, does make you smarter. Albeit temporarily.
Listening to music, especially complex classical music such as Mozart's, can improve cognitive performance temporarily by a noticeable margin.
The Mozart effect results in a temporary boost to cognitive performance on spatial-reasoning tests, even in adults. As I said above, these effects don't last for over 10-15 minutes.
But is there any evidence that music can permanently change the brain for the better?
Turns out, there is.
In one study, groups of children aged between 3-4 years were given extensive piano lessons for 6 months. They were introduced to music theory, sight reading, musical notation, and basic piano techniques. At the end of the 6-month period, all the involved children could play basic melodies by Mozart and Beethoven.
At the end of the study, these children were tested against children of similar age on standard spatial-temporal reasoning tests.
The children who played classical music scored an astonishing 30% higher than their peers.
More significantly, these results were unchanged for 24 hours after the end of the music lessons.
Which is to say: music permanently alters the brain in young children and improves their spatial-temporal reasoning performance.
This kind of intelligence is crucial in mathematics. Little wonder why you'll also find a lot of classical music enthusiasts among math PhDs.
Playing music, especially classical music, can improve cognitive performance and intelligence test scores in young children. If you're a parent with a young child, I highly recommend involving your kids in music. The cognitive effects are very significant.
The positive effects of music often depend on the way you're listening to (or playing) music. Essentially, how you interact with music boils down to three approaches:
Focused music listening where you intently listen to a piece of music
Music instruction, where you play a musical instrument following lessons
Background music listening, where you passively listen to music
In one study, researchers undertook a meta-analysis to understand the benefits of music for each of these three approaches.
Here's what they found:
Focused listening gives a temporary boost to cognitive performance (aka the 'Mozart effect). However, the effect is most palpable in adults and not quite as clear in children.
Music instruction improves cognitive performance in children (see above). There is, however, not enough evidence that this improvement in standardized tests equates to an improvement in actual academic performance.
Passively listening to music can help calm children down, thereby improving learning. This effect is most visible in children with special needs or learning difficulties.
I personally find that listening to music helps me concentrate better. In fact, I wrote this article while listening to soft music (Nujabes).
Although evidence varies, there is a clear link between music and cognitive performance in children. Both music instruction and passively listening to music can improve spatiotemporal reasoning, reduce anxiety, and improve focus among childre
Reading the above, you might be led to believe that the only music that offers any cognitive benefits is classical music.
But that's not really the case.
One 2005 study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences discovered the 'Blur Effect'. In the study, a large group of 10 and 11-year-olds were tested after listening to three different things:
Classical music composed by Mozart
A contemporary pop song by Blur (hence the name - the 'Blur Effect')
A discussion about the current experiment
The children were later tested on two tests - a square-completion test and a paper folding test.
The children's performance on the square completion test were largely the same. However, on the paper folding test, the children who listened to pop music performed much better than the children who listened to classical music.
Ergo, listening to music you actually enjoy is better for performance than forcing yourself to listen to classical music. For children of their age, a pop song is much more enjoyable than a Mozart piece.
The reasoning goes that a song you enjoy is likely going to improve your concentration and alertness. Forcibly listening to a boring song, regardless of genre, isn't going to have the same effect.
Listening to music improves cognitive abilities in children. However, it's much more important to listen to music you enjoy than to simply listen to any particular genre.
So far, we've seen that listening to music improves scores on standardized tests, at least temporarily.
But is there any way to get permanent, lasting improvements on intelligence through music?
Turns out, there is.
A study by E. Glenn Schellenberg of at the University of Toronto found that receiving music lessons leads to a small but noticeable improvement in IQ tests in young children.
In the study, 144 children (average age = 6 years) were divided into two groups. The first group received keyboard or voice lessons. The second group was either given drama lessons or no lessons at all. The classes lasted for 36 weeks and were held at the Royal Conservatory of Music. The children were tested on a standardized IQ test both before and after the lessons.
The study found that:
Children who received keyboard lessons increased their IQ by 6.1 points on average.
Children who received voice lessons increased their IQ by 7.6 points on average.
Drama lessons increased average IQ by 5.1 points.
Not receiving any lessons increased average IQ by 3.9 points.
Keep in mind that this was a year long study in growing children. Some increase in IQ scores would be natural. However, the study clearly found that children who receive some sort of musical lessons see a much greater increase in IQ than children who don't receive any lessons.
The researchers theorize that this improvement in IQ is due to the cognitive demands of learning music. Picking up an instrument or learning how to sing requires an understanding of music theory, concentration, and hand-eye coordination. All of these are crucial aspects of intelligence in growing children.
Taking music lessons of any kind has a marked improvement in IQ scores in growing children. On average, the improvement is 3 points higher than children who don't receive any music lessons.
Teach your children music - it will help them become smarter.
While we can safely conclude that taking music lessons leads to an overall improvement in IQ and spatiotemporal reasoning, we don't quite know how it impacts actual classroom performance.
That's what a study published in Music Therapy Perspectives set out to find.
In the study, 24 children aged 4-5 years were given 15 music lessons of 30-minutes each over a period of 15 weeks. These lessons were designed to teach writing and reading skills.
At the end of the 15-week period, the children were tested against a control group that did not receive any music lessons.
The children who received music lessons performed significantly better on prewriting and prereading tests than the control group.
The study theorized that this improvement in reading/writing can be ascribed to the fact that learning music activates the same parts of the brain as reading/writing. This, along with the cognitive demands of learning music helps the brain develop faster in young children.
Placing children in music education at an early age can lead to an improvement in reading/writing skills. The earlier they receive these lessons, the greater the improvement.
All of the studies we've seen so far tend to focus on non-classroom music instruction. Although these are certainly beneficial, not everyone can afford or even attempt to take music lessons outside of school.
The question is: does a school-based music program, conducted in a classroom setting, have the same benefits?
An extended, 2-year Australian study published in the Australian Society for Music Education found that intensive classroom-based classes in music instruction improve verbal memory in young children dramatically. However, the effects seem to lapse out over a year.
In the study, 142 children were placed into two groups. The first group, with a mean age of 8.62 years, was provided intensive instruction in string instruments in a classroom setting. The other control group of 68 children was given the usual music classes.
After the study, the students were tested on a number of tests, including immediate visual recall, verbal memory, and verbal learning over two years.
The study found that students who received intensive music lessons performed significantly better than the control group on verbal memory lessons after the first year.
After the second year, however, the benefits evened out. The control group that took normal music classes caught up and showed similar results.
Intensive music lessons improve verbal memory, even when delivered in a school-based, classroom setting.
There is a widespread belief that only a certain kind of music has any positive effect on children's development. Blame it on studies such as the "Mozart effect" or pop culture that conflates early development with classical music instruction.
One study published in the International Journal of Music Education set out to find the truth.
The study reviewed available evidence of the benefits of music on the intellectual, social, and personal development of children. It found two things:
Music education helps, but only if it is an enjoyable and rewarding experience
Music lessons boost performance in activities that use similar skills as playing an instrument
That is, you'll see better results from listening to or practicing music you enjoy than from a particular genre. Pop or rock has the same benefits as classical music or jazz as long as you actually enjoy listening to or creating it.
Similarly, musical skills are transferable to other activities only if they involve the same processes. For example, playing an instrument requires fine motor skills, creativity, and strong visual memory. Any activity that employs these skills - such as drawing or painting - will benefit from music instruction.
If you're teaching your kids music, don't fret too much about specific instruments or musical genres. Rather, focus on enjoyment. The more fun children have while listening to or playing music, the more they'll get out of it.
Music therapy is often dismissed as a mumbo-jumbo, new-age science. But there is significant evidence that it can yield some actual results.
Below, I've examined the latest scientific evidence on the benefits of music therapy. The results are eye-opening to say the least...
A number of small studies as well as anecdotal evidence suggests that music therapy can reduce the severity of symptoms in Alzheimer's patients. However, these studies are usually small and uncontrolled.
To find conclusive evidence of the benefits of music in Alzheimer's patients, researchers at the Landspitali University Hospital in Iceland undertook an extensive case-control study.
In the study, 38 patients with moderate or severe Alzheimer's diseases were assigned to either a music therapy group or a control group for a 6-week period.
At the end of the period, the patients were scored on the BEHAVE-AD scale. This scale measures key symptoms of Alzheimer's, such as hallucinations, activity disturbances, aggressiveness, anxiety, and paranoia, among others.
Patients who undertook music therapy treatment saw a marked reduction in most of these symptoms. For example, mean paranoid ideation scores reduced from 1.4 to 0.8, while those in the control group increased from 0.7 to 1.0.
It's interesting to note that the benefits of music therapy all but disappeared four weeks after the final therapy session. This indicates that although beneficial, music therapy isn't a permanent solution; it has to be an ongoing exercise.
Music therapy has a marked improvement in Alzheimer's symptoms, reducing paranoia, aggressiveness, and activity disturbances. However, for long-term effects, music therapy must be an ongoing exercise.
Music therapy isn't all about healing; sometimes, it is simply about lifting the spirits of patients.
A 2000 study attempted to investigate the benefits of music therapy in patients with acute brain injury and stroke. 18 such individuals were assigned to either a standard rehab program, or a rehab program with music therapy. The second group was given 3 music therapy treatments per week for a total of 10 treatments.
At the end of the four-week period, the participants were evaluated on three measures:
Self-rating of mood by the participants
Mood and social interaction ratings by family members
Mood and therapy participation ratings by therapists
The study found that the music therapy group showed a significant improvement in mood and social interaction as per their family members' ratings. Their therapists' ratings also showed that these patients were more involved in their treatment.
Another 2011 study published in the Yonsei Medical Journal in South Korea found similar conclusions. In this study, 18 post-stroke patients were placed in music therapy and control groups. The patients were then tested for anxiety and depression.
The study found that patients placed in music therapy showed a greater decrease in anxiety and depression scores than the control group. The decrease in depression scores was particularly significant, indicating that music therapy can improve mood.
Music therapy is a powerful tool for reducing depression, anxiety, and lifting mood among patients with severe brain injury or stroke. It stands to reason that the same benefits apply to non-stroke patients as well.
That is, if you feel down, music therapy can help.
I was surprised at the amount of research that has been done on the benefits of music. From education and learning to stress management and mental health, music seems to affect nearly every aspect of our lives positively.
These 15 studies are just a small sample of the scientific evidence of music’s benefits. Keep checking back this space; I’ll update it with more studies and research in the future.
In the meantime, can you do me a favor and share this research with your music-loving friends? They'll appreciate it!
For comments or suggestions, get in touch with me here