Years ago, the comedian Bob Hope used the song “Thanks for the Memories” as his theme song.
Now, brain researchers are humming a similar tune. Because it turns out that listening to old, familiar songs is not only soothing, but it could also improve brain function and recall.
Researchers say they have good evidence that for people with mild memory problems and even dementia, listening to their favorite songs can revive memory.
A study at the University of Toronto demonstrates that listening to songs that have personal meaning can improve the memory and learning abilities of people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and Alzheimer’s disease.1
“We have new brain-based evidence that autobiographically salient music — that is, music that holds special meaning for a person, like the song they danced to at their wedding — stimulates neural connectivity in ways that help maintain higher levels of functioning,” says researcher Michael Thaut, PhD.
Increased Brain Activity
In this study, fourteen people in the early stages of MCI– six musicians and eight non-musicians – spent an hour a day for three weeks listening to a playlist of songs that they were familiar with and liked.
The study participants also had brain scans both before and after listening to the music to see what kind of changes occurred in their brain structure and function. And while their brains were being scanned, they listened to samples of music they were familiar with as well as newly composed songs that they had never heard before.
The researchers found that when the people in the study listened to new music, their brain activity mostly took place in the auditory cortex, a section of the brain’s temporal lobe that is responsible for processing signals sent from the ears.
The results demonstrate that when people listen to music they have already known for a long time, it activates the brain network in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that participates in creativity, problem solving and reasoning. According to the researchers, this shows that familiar music stimulates more extensive cognitive engagement.
Improved Memory and Cognitive Function
In the research, repeated listening to familiar music improved memory and intellectual abilities in everyone involved in the study – both musicians and non-musicians.
“Whether you’re a lifelong musician or have never even played an instrument, music is an access key to your memory, your pre-frontal cortex,” says Dr. Thaut. “It’s simple — keep listening to the music that you’ve loved all your life. Your all-time favorite songs, those pieces that are especially meaningful to you — make that your brain gym.”
Other research into the brain benefits of music have uncovered a host of additional ways in which music can help a variety of brain issues. For example:
- Music can help stop epilepsy. A study at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth shows that listening to music by Mozart can reduce spikes of epilepsy-associated electrical brain activity in people with medication-resistant epilepsy. In this research, a mere 30 seconds of Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major helped improve brain function. The investigators believe that the music may activate networks within the brain regulated by the frontal cortex that are linked to positive emotional responses.2
- Dancing to music can slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease. A review study at York University in England demonstrates that an hour or so of dance training weekly can slow down the worsening of speech problems and balance issues in people with mild-to-moderate Parkinson’s disease.3
- Daily listening to vocal music can help stroke victims recover their language skills. Research at the University of Helsinki shows that listening to vocal music speeds the recovery of the structural connectivity of the brain’s language network in the left frontal lobe. And the study found that music is even more effective at facilitating language recovery than listening to audiobooks.4
Although some researchers stress the importance of listening to enjoyable, friendly songs to keep your brain working better, one caution offered by other studies is to be careful about listening to music right before bed.
According to sleep researchers at Baylor University, if you listen to a catchy tune at bedtime, that can set off brain activity that may disrupt your sleep.5
So listen to lots of bright tunes during the day. But as you get ready for slumber at night, it’s better to enjoy the sounds of silence.