How Music Affects the Brain

Mental Health

You’ve likely heard the advice about having your young children — even developing fetuses — listen to classical music, and particularly Mozart, because supposedly it will make them smarter. This is how the term “the Mozart Effect” came into existence.

So what’s the deal? Does the Mozart Effect actually exist? Can simply listening to a certain kind of music make you smarter?

Let’s find out.

The Effects of Music on the Brain

Here at Bow Health we often talk about the importance of physical health, covering topics that range from fitness to nutrition to workout supplements such as creatine, but maintaining a strong mind is just as important as a strong body.

It certainly makes intuitive sense that listening to complex music makes us smarter — after all, listening to music causes multiple brain regions to become active and engaged. But does this process really make us more intelligent long-term?

Orchestra playing music

The initial study that made the claim about the intellectual benefits of music specifically linked listening to classical music to an increase in spatial task performance. Spatial task performance relies on one’s spatial ability. According to Wikipedia, spatial ability is defined as the “capacity to understand, reason and remember the spatial relations among objects or space.” If you’ve ever had aptitude testing done, they measured your spatial-temporal ability when you did tests such as paper-cutting and folding.

Since the original claim, cases have been made for both sides — in heated fashion, of course — but researchers have been unable to provide definitive evidence either way. Basically what this means is that researchers still don’t know for sure how music affects the brain.

Some Positive Results in Support

Although there hasn’t been anything definitive, there have been additional studies that have shown positive results.

For example, a study done on rats showed that rats exposed to complex music (such as a Mozart Sonata) were able to complete mazes much more quickly than rats exposed to minimalist music, white noise, or silence. This provides some supporting evidence, but still is not enough to be considered conclusive evidence, or to prove a causal relationship between listening to music and intelligence.

With that said, however, it has been found that there are significant benefits to learning how to play an instrument — for anyone but especially in children.

Benefits of Playing Music

While just listening to complex music may not quite make us smarter, learning to play music sure does. The strong evidence supporting the benefits of playing music are on par with that which supports the benefits of meditation on your mental health. Some have compared learning to play an instrument to a full-body workout for the brain.

Here’s a brief video that describes the differences in brain activity which occur while listening to music vs playing music:

As explained on the video, playing an instrument has been shown to increase the volume and activity that occur in the corpus callosum, a brain region that acts as a bridge between the two brain hemispheres, thus improving communication between the two.

Such an improvement may result in faster and more creative problem-solving. In addition to this, it’s been found that musicians have better memory function than their non-musical counterparts.

Playing Music and Child Brain Development

Evidence for enhanced brain function from playing music is particularly strong with young children.

Child playing musical instrument

One study, conducted with groups of children who were 3-4 years old, showed that musical training may cause “long-term enhancement of preschool children’s spatial-temporal reasoning.”

The researchers concluded that such an enhancement would give the children a significant boost in learning subjects like mathematics and science, both of which rely heavily on spatial reasoning.

The Final Chord

As we’ve seen, there’s no clear answer if listening to classical music such as Mozart makes us more intelligent. However, the way many people look at it is that exposing ourselves and our children to classical music is not going to hurt. There’s really no downside to listening to the work of a musical genius — only a potential upside.

If there’s only a very slight chance that there are benefits to listening to Mozart, why not do it? And even if it doesn’t raise our IQ’s in any measurable way, there’s certainly nothing wrong with a little cultural enrichment.

Final note: Listening to classical music is not going to hurt anything and may quite possibly improve certain brain functions. Have your children listen as well. But most importantly: Get your children involved with a musical instrument at a young age. Not only may it blossom into a lifelong musical passion, but it will likely enhance their intellectual abilities for the rest of their lives.