It’s not like you need to be told that music is powerfully healing and emotionally satisfying. I know when I’m down, cranking up the tunes yields an instant mood and attitude adjustment.
That’s probably why I’m a sucker for Spotify’s “listen like you used to” campaign, which encourages Gen Xers to bring music from back in the day into our current day-to-day. After all, you need tunes for the evening wind-down:
1983 – UB40, Red Red Wine. 2019 – You be 40, red red wine.
By the time the lyrics “memories won’t go” get stuck in your craw, you’re likely enjoying a buzzy dopamine download driven by neural nostalgia. This is what Confucious meant by music producing “a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.”
But music’s power goes far beyond stimulating happy hormones. Loads of research shows it can help reduce blood pressure, pain, and anxiety while improving your sleep quality, mood, memory, and mental acuity. In other words, a great way to tune in to getting better at getting older.
This is your brain on music
Just as learning a new language improves cognitive functioning, music also boosts neuroplasticity, helping your brain form new connections. Unlike more effort-driven tasks, even passively listening to music gives your brain a workout by activating neurons in both hemispheres.
As a Johns Hopkins otolaryngologist explains:
Music is structural, mathematical and architectural. It’s based on relationships between one note and the next. You may not be aware of it, but your brain has to do a lot of computing to make sense of it.
From the first note, your auditory cortex starts blending beat, harmony, and melody into a holistic experience. If you sing along, your premotor cortex joins in to plot and sync movements. Dance, and your neurons align with the beat.
And if you have strong memories associated with the song, your prefrontal cortex — the seat of willpower, logic, decision-making, creativity, goal-setting, and problem-solving — is activated.
Instrumental as you age
Amazingly, it’s not just complex classical compositions that train your brain. From pop to punk and all genres in between, research shows that your mind responds to the music you love best.
Since the 1980s, there has been a growing body of work focusing on the healing power of music. Neurologists like Dr. Oliver Sacks, whose pioneering work on the benefits of music therapy in helping patients with age-related ailments like Parkinson’s, dementia, and strokes, helped pave the way to turn a scientific ear on its therapeutic promise.
Now that we’re living longer than ever before, leading medical organizations, including the National Institutes of Health, are turning up the volume on music-related research. Finding more empirical evidence and applications for music’s healing power sounds like Nirvana to our aging ears.