Music: A Whole Brain-Body Workout

By Dr. Krystal L. Culler, DBH, MA and Shannon Wallace, CDP, CDC

Shannon Wallace is a Certified Dementia Practitioner through the National Council of Certified Dementia Practitioners; is Dementia Care Certified; and is the founder and CEO of Musical Memory Care, an in-person and live online workshop program that specializes in interactive music, movement and sensory-memory workshops for active adults in group and individual settings; and those of all ages living with dementia/cognitive impairment/IDD, along with their care partners. Her career spans 30 years in professional, international music performance, television, marketing and public policy/advocacy. 

Exploring Music’s Impact on the Brain
Did you know that brain health is a critical piece of our overall health? It underlies our ability to communicate, make decisions, problem-solve and live a productive, creative and purposeful life. Because the brain controls so much of our daily function, it is arguably the single most valuable organ in the human body.

And because music has been scientifically proven to engage multiple areas of the brain simultaneously, music can be considered a critical tool for a whole brain workout! 

Studies have shown that playing an instrument or singing engages the auditory cortex, motor cortex, and prefrontal cortex; and listening to music engages the auditory cortex, limbic system, and prefrontal cortex. 

  • The auditory cortex is responsible for interpreting sound and is one of the most active areas of the brain when it comes to music. 
  • The motor cortex is responsible for controlling movement and helps us to coordinate our movements when playing instruments or singing. 
  • The prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher-level cognitive functions such as planning, problem-solving, and decision-making. 
  • And because most people have felt the familiar rush of memories and emotions when listening to an old song, the limbic system is a set of structures responsible for eliciting those emotions, arousals, and long-term memories associated.

As a result, music can help to: 

  1. reduce stress and improve mood by stimulating the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin; 
  2. improve creativity by helping to stimulate our imagination; and 
  3. improve productivity and memory by aiding in increased focus and concentration.

It’s also important to note that the positive effects of music on the brain is subjective. In other words, every individual has his/her own preferred playlist of songs that can elicit a very specific and personal response or outcome. So whether we make music or just enjoy it, it’s our self-selected music that can meaningfully engage and positively impact our brain in its totality.

Music as a Brain Booster
Music can be a powerful way to improve concentration, memory, and problem-solving skills. Certain types of music can be particularly helpful for focusing attention and increasing alertness. Research has found that upbeat music can increase motivation and drive, allowing people to focus better and remain productive. This can be especially helpful for activities that require sustained attention, such as studying or completing a task. 

Listening to music can also improve memory. Studies show that music can increase the rate of recall and enhance long-term memory. Music can also help people to easily recall learned information. This can be especially helpful for memorizing facts and figures or studying a language. 

Finally, music can help people to better problem-solve. Studies have found that select background music can help people to think more creatively and come up with innovative solutions to problems. Listening to music can also help to reduce stress, which can help to improve mental clarity and facilitate better decision-making. 

Overall, listening to music can be a great way to improve concentration, memory, and problem-solving skills. 

Music as an Outlet for Emotions
Music has long been used as a way to reduce stress and anxiety levels. Research has shown that listening to calming music can lead to a decrease in stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. And whatever the tempo, the act of listening to music can also help to redirect from unpleasant thoughts or worries, prompting the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good hormones. Listening to music can also help to provide a sense of control in situations that may feel overwhelming, as the listener can choose what to listen to. As a result, music can be considered an effective outlet for emotions. 

Music as a Creative Stimulant
Music has the power to inspire creativity and promote creative thinking in many ways. Listening to music can help to open up the mind and spark new ideas. It can also provide a soundtrack to help maintain focus and concentration, allowing individuals to be more productive with their creative endeavors. Music can also evoke emotion and help to invoke powerful imagery and storytelling. This can help to increase imagination and facilitate creative thinking by providing a source of inspiration. Music can also help to create a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere, which can lead to more creative thinking and problem-solving. Music can inspire one’s overall desire to be creative and  feel motivated.

Music as a Productivity Tool
Music can help to enhance productivity and focus by providing a distraction-free environment. Listening to music can help to block out distracting noises and thoughts, thereby reducing the amount of time spent on task-switching and allowing for more efficient work. Music can also help to create an atmosphere of focus, allowing the listener to concentrate on their work for longer periods of time. Music can help to increase motivation and improve mood, which can lead to increased productivity. Certain types of music, such as classical or instrumental, can help to create a sense of calm and reduce stress, which can improve concentration and help increase productivity. (One of Krystal’s favorite playlists on classical music for brain power featuring Mozart can be found here.)

Music as a Brain-to-Body Workout
Not only can music give the brain a full workout, but it can also increase the duration of a full-body exercise session. By listening, playing or singing music, research shows that up-regulated beta waves in the frontal and frontal-central regions of the brain, during the act of physical activity, leads to more dissociative thoughts, and induces more positive affective responses, up-regulated arousal, and enhanced perceived enjoyment. 

When music is used simultaneously during an exercise workout, maximal heart rate can be more likely achieved (rather than without music), and can not only increase endurance, but also delay fatigue. In other words, music serves as a distraction to what can otherwise be perceived as an obligatory physical activity/task. 

Lastly, using the brain as a conduit, music can also improve balance; improve verbal and motor skills; reduce tremors and shakes (from the effects of Parkinson’s Disease); and have an overall positive sensory-memory effect (i.e., hand-eye coordination skills). (An open invitation to engage your brain and body in a free, live-online, Musical Memory Care workshop with Shannon that is offered monthly at the Virtual Brain Health Center.)

Music as Sound Healing for Brain & Body
Sound healing has quickly become a viable means to revitalize the brain’s overall functionality and performance. Once an ancient practice found in various cultures worldwide, sound healing taps into the power of vibrations and frequencies that can reach every part of the body, including the brain (sounds are not just heard by our ears, but felt through our entire being).  

Theories suggest that compromised or diseased cells in the brain and/or the body can change frequencies. As a result, the cellular structure can develop discordant vibratorial structures from the rest of the body, thereby causing various types and degrees of cognitive and physical impairments. In the appropriate settings, sound healing can be used to help regenerate the integrity of the body’s cells, and realign in a more concordant manner (homeostasis). 

Sound healing can consist of deep, resonant sounds or discordant buzzing that some may find more dissonate than pleasant. As a result, sound healing may not always be what modern ears consider “music,” but the therapeutic vibrations and frequencies are relevant and applicable. 

Interestingly, music and sound healing are now being used as a therapy in pre-operative, operating and recovery room settings with the aim to reduce the use of allopathic medicines. By doing so, these more holistic modalities have been known to help patients restore lost speech after a brain injury, reduce overall pain perception, and improve quality-of-life for those living with dementia, among other positive outcomes. (Learn more about the profound potential of 40 Hz music for brain health in our free upcoming event on March 14, 2024.) 

Simple Ways to Add Music to Your Daily Life
Music has the power to connect people and create meaningful experiences. It can also produce emotions and feelings that can lead to positive behavior changes. Music is a vital part of human life and has the potential to positively impact the brain in many ways.

Explore 5 ways to activate your brain with music:

  1. Use Music to Tune into Your Circadian Rhythm: (Review our blog on understanding our internal clock.) Intentionally, pair different types of music (and sound healing modalities) with your daily tasks for a boost. Time music with daily tasks or key functions. Consider upbeat music in the morning to get energized and moving. Use calming music in the evening to help you unwind and relax. (A couple of examples of sound healing videos Shannon likes can be found here and here.)
  2. Exercise to Music: Exercise has been shown to improve brain health and listening to music while exercising can help you stay motivated, increase your brain and body endurance, and enjoy your workout. Explore upbeat music to keep moving.
  3. Use Music to Manage Stress: Listening to certain types of music can help to reduce stress levels and help you relax. Try classical or meditative music before bed to help you relax and ease into sleep.
  4. Have a Dance Party: Take a break to sing and dance. Singing and dancing are both great ways to boost your mood and improve your brain health. It can help improve cardiovascular health, build strength, and increase flexibility. Make your household chores more enjoyable by adding music.
  5. Use Music to Stimulate Memory: Play the music in a variety of different settings and contexts, such as at home, in the car, or during a walk. Music has been shown to help improve memory recall, so try listening to music you associate with certain memories when you need to remember something.

Music provides a whole brain workout by engaging and stimulating the brain in multiple ways, while simultaneously engaging both hemispheres. The left hemisphere processes the rhythmic and melodic components of music, while the right hemisphere processes the emotional and creative aspects. This means that music engages both the creative and logical parts of the brain (our whole brain!), thereby improving the connections between them and giving our entire brain a workout. Turn on the music to boost your brain power!

In brain health and wellness,
Krystal & Shannon

P.S.- Download a free infographic on how music is a whole brain-body workout today.


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