Music and the Brain

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH

A young woman sitting on the grass listening to music while reading and writing in a book, symbolizing a link between music and the brainDid you know that music and the brain have a supportive relationship, and that music can reduce stress and adrenal fatigue! One of the most common early symptoms of adrenal fatigue is irritability and brain fog. Playing, or learning to play, a musical instrument may help improve your cognitive function, memory, and comprehension while calming the body and reducing anxiety and irritation.

When we think of brain fog, we typically think of memory issues, but brain fog can also involve trouble with comprehension and other cognitive skills. Improving overall cognitive function, with music training, can help ease the brain fog frequently associated with adrenal fatigue.

Remember that cells within our body are constantly vibrating, producing energy and getting rid of metabolites. This vibratory mode is what keeps us warm and maintains our basal metabolic temperature at a steady rate. When cells stop vibrating, cell death occurs. So, how are music and the brain associated you might ask; what does this information mean?

Well, music, at the root, is a form of organized sound. Music is sounds that are in sync, and in tune, with the body’s internal cellular vibratory frequency. Unorganized sound, noise, is not in sync with your body’s vibratory frequencies. Noise frequencies do not follow common rhythm patterns that your body is used to. Noise can disrupt our cellular vibratory frequencies, leading to cellular pollution in the extracellular matrix (ECM). A congested ECM leads to inflammation. When this happens, the body’s compensatory response is to activate the adrenal glands to put out cortisol, the anti-inflammatory hormone. It is part of our body’s comprehensive neuroendometabolic (NEM) stress response. The more disruptive the sounds, the more our body is stimulated and the harder the adrenals have to work. Overexertion of the adrenal glands can lead to adrenal fatigue overtime.

Music and the Brain

As we age, the central auditory system begins to weaken, making it difficult to comprehend speech, even in the absence of hearing loss. In a study conducted by the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences in Canada, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, 20 healthy adults between the ages of 55 and 75 were tested on their ability to identify speech sounds, some received simple vowel sounds, some more complicated combinations of sounds. The study participants had their neural activity recorded with an EEG (electroencephalography) as they listened to the sounds.

The researchers found that the brains of their musically trained subjects were able to process these sounds more efficiently and robustly than their non-musician counterparts. Musicians processed, and identified, sounds an average of 20% faster. This shows that music training can bolster the brain in a way that minimizes the effects of aging and other factors associated with cognitive decline.

Music in Adulthood

A young man smiles as he puts earphones in, showing how music and the brain interact to improve moodWhile this study, and many similar studies that look at the relationship between music and the brain, are conducted on musicians who have studied and practiced music from early childhood, researchers are now finding that learning music, in adulthood, also offers significant cognitive benefits. Just passively listening to music can help calm the mind and lower stress levels. This is a critical factor in recovering from adrenal fatigue.

It has long been accepted that major stressful events, such as those associated with PTSD, can cause significant changes in the structure of the brain, but scientists have only recently begun to investigate the effect of chronic stress on the brain. In one series of experiments conducted at UC Berkeley, researchers discovered that excess cortisol triggers the production of excess myelin producing cells, and an underproduction of neurons in the hippocampus of rats. These findings are published in the February 11, 2014 issue of Molecular Psychiatry. Scientists think that these changes can cause the brain to become hardwired into a near-perpetual state of fight or flight. This triggers the release of more cortisol in a vicious cycle that spells disaster for those suffering from adrenal fatigue.

Rewiring the Brain

The good news is the brain is moldable and can be rewired, and many of these changes can be reversed, in a process known as neuroplasticity. Scientists used to think that brain development only occurred during childhood, but now we know that the brain continues to grow and develop throughout life. Actively engaging music and the brain can improve the ability of the brain to grow and develop throughout life. It also facilitates the ability of the nervous system to develop a scaffolding of patterns that improve learning and memory.

A closeup of a child's hands as she plays the piano, representing the benefits of music and the brain in creating mental pathwaysEvery second of every day, the world is bombarding you with stimuli. A healthy brain filters out most of this stimuli and focuses on what is important. Excessive stress and adrenal fatigue makes it difficult to filter stimuli, leading to overstimulation and even greater stress levels. Studying and learning to play music encourages the brain to process complex information such as decoding written scores, keeping time, and coordinating one’s own playing with that of other musicians. Playing music coordinates sensory and cognitive processes in a way that few other activities do. This integration of sense and cognition improves concentration and focus. Learning to concentrate and filter out irrelevant stimuli can significantly lower stress levels, and can help reduce the brain fog that often accompanies adrenal fatigue.

Many studies have demonstrated a positive link between music and the brain, recognizing that music training can increase brain health. Several studies have found that musically trained people are significantly less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Learning to play builds synapses, which are crucial to brain health, especially as we age. A study conducted at the Loma Linda University School of Medicine and Applied Biosystems, found that playing an instrument can actually reverse the effects of stress at the molecular level. The results of this study can be found in the Medical Science Monitor.

In addition to the above, many studies have found that listening to music can reduce heart rate and regulate respiration, but studies conducted at Bryan Memorial Hospital in Lincoln, Nebraska and at St. Mary’s Hospital in Mequon, Wisconsin, found significant reductions in heart rate and regulation of blood pressure and respiration in post-surgical patients. It would not be unreasonable to believe the same would hold true for people who are experiencing other types of stressful situations.

Other Benefits of Music

Even if you don’t have the time, or the desire, to learn a musical instrument, just listening to music can help lower stress levels and increase productivity. Just twenty minutes of soothing music before bed can help you relax and have a more restful sleep. Listening to music while you work, whether you are at work, or just doing household chores, can make the work more enjoyable. The key is in choosing the right kind of music for the task at hand.

A violin sitting on sheet music, representing the music half of music and the brainHere are some common positive relationships between the type of music and the brain activity that corresponds. When performing mentally demanding tasks, instrumental music can be less distracting than music with lyrics while helping you tune out other background noises. Dance music, or other music with a fast beat, is great for repetitive tasks. A wandering, unfocused brain is a stressed and unhappy brain. Listening to music can help keep you focused. It also triggers the release of dopamine, a feel good transmitter that helps you feel calm and centered. It may take a little experimentation to find the best music for you in various settings, but once you do, you’ll be amazed at how different you feel, just by incorporating more music, both playing and listening, into your daily routine.

© Copyright 2016 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

A young man smiles as he puts earphones in, showing how music and the brain interact to improve mood