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Repair Your Brain -- With Your Radio!

By Edited Jan 17, 2016 5 7

It's no secret that as we get older, our brains tend to get older, too. Because as we go through life we have negative experiences, we ingest toxins, and we just plain get older, each of those experiences tends to have negative effects on our brains. However, the good news is that modern scientific research shows that our brains have the capacity to repair themselves (a phenomenon recently discovered, and known as neuroplasticity), and the solution can be as simple as changing the dial on your radio--because classical music has been shown to repair brain damage and restore brain function!

Now, no-one is claiming that you can repair years of damage in a week or two, or that this music is the only solution, or that it will work miracles. But peer-reviewed clinical scientific studies have shown that by listening to classical music, your brain will begin to recover healthier functions, form new neural pathways, and become larger and more interconnected. Other types of music, as much as you may prefer them, do not work in the same way, and it is thought that because this music is so complex, and so information-dense, that when you listen to it, your brain works to process the information, and thereby remodels and reshapes itself, growing new neurons (a neuron is a brain cell) and forming new synaptic pathways (a synaptic pathway is a trail that is formed among specific neurons which tend to fire together; in the neuroscientific community, this is known as "neurons that fire together, wire together").

The fact is that most modern popular music is predictable, uses exactly the same form, exactly the same harmonic progressions, and thereby is fairly devoid of information. Classical music, on the other hand, has longer and more complex musical thought (the phrases can be up to a minute long -- a third of the way through a modern popular song), and because the compositions are longer, those musical thoughts have to interact in more complex ways, and that is why your brain actually benefits from listening to this form of music -- because there is more information to interpret, and your brain has to work harder at it). (In the early days of the research into music and the brain, this was called the "Mozart Effect", based on research in the 1950s by Alfred Tomatis.)

You may have heard that new research shows that children who are bullied show brain damage on their MRI scans, and that the experience these children have mimics the brain damage shown by people who have experiences that trigger PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and PDSD (prolonged duration stress disorder). In fact, bullying results in a syndrome known as complex PTSD, where a number of small traumatic events are not enough to trigger PTSD, and then one traumatic event will trigger the PTSD and cause the former traumatic events to trigger PTSD later in a cascade effect. However, listening to classical music positively affects the same areas of the brain that PTSD damages, and so classical music may be part of the solution to recovering from PTSD. In fact, when you listen to classical music, your entire brain lights up on an MRI scan!

Because this research is still in its infancy, nobody is exactly sure how it works, but the results are exciting and new studies are published month after month as more researchers become interested in how music affects the brain. Studies have shown that classical music affects us in positive ways at every stage of life, from infants in their mother's womb to aged people in their last years of life, from making already healthy children adjust better and become more cooperative (and, incidentally, earn more money), to critically ill patients as they near death. All this scientific research into music and the brain is out there, and you should take advantage of it, because of all the health benefits to your brain and body. I encourage you to read the research for yourself and then make the switch to classical music.

Don't forget, also, that the brain controls mood, and it has been shown that people who listen to classical music are less stressed, less anxious, less depressed, more cheerful, and have better relationships with other people. As if there weren't enough reasons to listen to classical music already, this one might just be worth switching your dial over to your local classical music station!

However, as wonderful as this news is, there are even more benefits available. By learning to play classical music yourself (not by turning on the CD or mp3 player, but by learning to play an instrument), you will receive even more brain benefits. MRI studies show that there are long-lasting changes that occur after only twenty minutes of lessons, and that the brains of classical musicians are larger, heavier, and far more interconnected than the brains of people in other professions. So once you have accustomed yourself to listening to classical music, you should try to learn an instrument to get the most brain benefits. The benefits range from better grades in school, to better social skills, to better adjustment in society (when was the last time you heard of a concert oboist involved with a gang?), to a better income (eighty per cent of people earning over $150,000 each year had a background in music), to delaying, preventing, or in some cases, reversing the effects of Alzheimer's disease.

It may take a few weeks of an adjustment to learn to listen to a different kind of music, but just as you can learn to eat a new vegetable for its benefits to your heart, you can learn to enjoy a new kind of music for the benefits to your brain! With over a thousand years' worth of music to choose from, and dozens of different types of forms, written for singers or any possible combination of instruments, once you begin listening, you are sure to find something you like. So try listening to classical music, and see for yourself how in just weeks you will start to feel less stressed, more alert, and happier.

The NPR Classical Music Companion: An Essential Guide for Enlightened Listening
Amazon Price: $18.95 $12.98 Buy Now
(price as of Jan 17, 2016)
If you have no idea where to start, or what to listen for, this book may be a very helpful resource to learn to enjoy classical music.


May 22, 2010 7:46pm
These studies about classical music and scholastic performance are amazing. When you think of all the subtle nuances found it classical music, it really starts to make sense. Great article!
May 22, 2010 10:43pm
Check out my blog (in my signature) for the studies, usually posted on Wednesdays and Saturdays. I post abstracts with links to the original article, and then tell you what it means in plain English and add some commentary.

I have upwards of two hundred studies posted on my blog to date. And every week I am surprised at something I read in the scientific journals about classical music and wellness!
Jun 26, 2010 3:23pm
I am very impressed with the level of quality information on your blog!

But I have a question: You wrote "I post abstracts with links to the original article" ... My question is: Do you ask for permission to do so? And, have you ever run into problems with copyright issues?
Jun 26, 2010 4:00pm
I have never run into a copyright problem. This is considered "fair use" in the academic world, and I do give credit to the original authors and a link back to the original article. Of course, if anyone ever has a complaint I will honour their request to remove the material.
May 24, 2010 10:54am
This is incredible, I had a tape that I played once with soft music that was supposed to completely relax me and make me sleep better and I could understand that should work(not on me) But this is incredible eh! great article. Gee we learn so much from reading other peoples articles. thumbs up.
Jul 12, 2010 1:49pm
Wonderful article. Nice to see an article that refers to peer review in the 'popular' internet press. I wish I could play anything, but my musical ear is so bad that when I was 10 years old the teacher told me to mime instead of singing, He'd be sued nowadays. I am goingto get up . No I got up to put on Beethoven's 9th on Deutsche Gromofon with Bernstein (just so you can hear it too, LOL).
I used to teach with a guy who was a firm believer in playing Mozart while he was teaching. I use to tell my own students to try listening to jazz instrumentals while revising for exams, rather than pop. Some swore by it
Apr 11, 2012 2:07am
Tres interesting article. I had the situation of growing up with only classical music in the background at home and when I went to school I knew nothing of pop music. When I visit my parents these days, my father who runs many chamber music groups and bands, is always playing one of his many instruments, which tends to give me an on the spot headache.
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