GUEST POST: The healing powers of music

Our research director considers what music does to the brain and how it might be helpful for certain neurological disorders.

April 9, 2018

If you’re a musician, you might swear by the healing powers of music. If you’re musically challenged, like me, you might wonder how listening to music could promote mental health, let along some aspect of physical health. Rather than preach to the choir of musicians, this article is to help us non-music folk understand a little bit better what that choir is raving about. And since I’m a neuroscientist, I think it might be useful to consider what music is doing to the brain to understand how it might be helpful for certain disorders.

Parts of our brain communicate with each other through brain waves (1). You could think of your brain as a choir, with its different areas being different people in the choir. Singing a pretty song requires synchrony between the choir members (you can’t have a few people jamming out to their own beat; they all need to sing to the same beat), and the same is true of your brain. Once everyone is in synch, the choir needs the right people (say the sopranos) the carry the song at some parts, but calm down at other parts so tenors can take the lead. Your brain does the same thing when its working properly. While reading this article your visual cortex is “singing” loudly, but your smelling areas should be pretty quiet. If your brain has problems coordinating its “choir,” it might have trouble achieving its goals. For example, if your motor cortex is trying to sing, you might be swinging your arms instead of reading this article. This is where the music can come in.

As you probably guessed from my not-so-subtle metaphor, there are a lot of similarities between brain communication and the structure of music. Waves are important to both music and the brain, and the brain can be heavily influenced by rhythmic patterns (this is why strobe lights promote seizures in some people). As a result, music can have powerful effects on the brain. Unfortunately, the neuroscience of music research is a pretty new area, but I’ll give a few highlights on this topic. Listening to classical music can increase the communication between brain areas (2), particularly in brain waves related to emotions (3). Indeed, music can put the brain into a state of focused attention (4), and this increased brain communication can improve learning (5).

Again, the musicians reading this are probably singing for joy, but the rest of us musically challenged people are probably still thinking: “So what?” Well, many neurological and mental health conditions are related to brain areas not communicating well with each other. In Parkinson’s Disease, a brain structure called the Substantia Nigra slowly dies, resulting in movement impairments. Since music can help connect brain areas (6), it helps other parts of the brain compensate for the Substantia Nigra, letting people with Parkinson’s regain their ability to walk normally. This is the basis for the Ambulosono research project that Branch Out has funded with Dr. Bin Hu (7) (in turn, Ambulosono inspired Eugene Stickland’s theatre performance for Branch Out’s This is Your Brain on Art Event). Music-based therapies are scientifically supported to improve movement in Parkinson’s [Meta-analysis (8)], but studies are starting to look at its potential for Autism (9) and depression (10). Neuroscientists are just beginning to learn how to best use music to promote brain health, but musicians have been aware of this healing power for a long time. Together, they could make your brain dance (literally through brainwaves) its way to wellness.


Buzsaki, G. (2006). Rhythms of the Brain. Oxford University Press.
Bhattacharya, J., Petsche, H., & Pereda, E. (2001). Interdependencies in the spontaneous EEG while listening to music. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 42(3), 287-301.
Bhattacharya, J., & Petsche, H. (2005). Phase synchrony analysis of EEG during music perception reveals changes in functional connectivity due to musical expertise. Signal processing, 85(11), 2161-2177.
Schaefer, R. S., Vlek, R. J., & Desain, P. (2011). Music perception and imagery in EEG: Alpha band effects of task and stimulus. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 82(3), 254-259.
Peterson, D. A., & Thaut, M. H. (2007). Music increases frontal EEG coherence during verbal learning. Neuroscience Letters, 412(3), 217-221.
Thaut, M. H., McIntosh, G. C., & Hoemberg, V. (2015). Neurobiological foundations of neurologic music therapy: rhythmic entrainment and the motor system. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 1185.
Hu, B. (2016). Sustained Relief of Multiple Types of Gait Freezing in Parkinson’s Disease: A Novel, Music-Based Meta-Conditioning Treatment Protocol (Ambulosono)(P4. 328). Neurology, 86(16 Supplement), P4-328.
de Dreu, M. J., Van Der Wilk, A. S. D., Poppe, E., Kwakkel, G., & van Wegen, E. E. (2012). Rehabilitation, exercise therapy and music in patients with Parkinson’s disease: a meta-analysis of the effects of music-based movement therapy on walking ability, balance and quality of life. Parkinsonism & related disorders, 18, S114-S119.
Kim, J., Wigram, T., & Gold, C. (2009). Emotional, motivational and interpersonal responsiveness of children with autism in improvisational music therapy. Autism, 13(4), 389-409.
Fachner, J., Gold, C., & Erkkilä, J. (2013). Music therapy modulates fronto-temporal activity in rest-EEG in depressed clients. Brain topography, 26(2), 338-354.

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