Music Therapy for Cognitive Function: How It Works

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Key Information

Music enhances cognition

Listening to or playing music can improve memory, attention, executive function, verbal skills, and processing speed.

Music triggers neurochemical changes

Music influences brain chemistry by boosting dopamine, acetylcholine, and GABA levels, which affect motivation, mood, learning, and relaxation

Music induces neuroplasticity

Music stimulates structural and functional changes in the brain, strengthening connectivity and enabling recovery from neurological conditions.

Music can be personalized for optimal results

Music can be tailored to specific cognitive goals and needs, using genre, tempo, and instrumentation to align with desired brain states.

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As a nutritional therapy practitioner, I’m often exploring new ways to enhance mental clarity and overall brain health. Recently, several clients have asked me about music therapy – can something as simple as listening to your favorite songs sharpen memory and boost cognition?

It turns out that science strongly supports music integration for improving multiple aspects of brain function. Board-certified music therapists are even leveraging the nuanced neurological effects of melody, tempo, and rhythm to help patients recover from strokes and neurodegenerative disease.

Let’s break down exactly how and why music enhances cognition, along with actionable techniques for your own “music prescriptions” at home.

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Key Cognitive Benefits of Music

Research shows music training and exposure optimize a wide spectrum of cognitive abilities, including:


Music stands out from other sensory stimuli in triggering elaborate memory encoding and retrieval. Songs act as time capsules for powerfully anchoring life events and emotional states to assist recollection [1].

Frequent listening also promotes hippocampal neurogenesis underlying experiential learning. For example, those studying a new language see lyrics help encode linguistic patterns. While older adults reconnect more dots within life narratives [2].

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Executive Function

Playing an instrument simultaneously challenges several higher-order processes – reading notation, translating movements, and monitoring results. This engages dedicated prefrontal lobe circuitry, bolstering planning, working memory, impulse control, and more [3].

Musical training essentially exercises the maestro conductor in our heads with noticeable benefits in non-musical complex tasks as well. From reverse parking to mastering new board games, you’ll likely find it easier to manage multifaceted information streams.

Using sound for cognitive gains isn’t just for musicians! The innovative Apollo Neuro wearable leverages silent vibrations tuned to your body’s natural rhythms that can significantly enhance executive function and impulse control.

Attention & Processing Speed

Upbeat, familiar songs immediately capture our ears, triggering dopaminergic “seeking” reactions and anticipatory pleasure [4]. This fuels motivation, alertness, and concentration naturally. No jittery side effects required!

Rhythmic drive also sets an energizing pace, while harmonic anticipation keeps us oriented to track progression. Like progress bars loading online, sound patterns can speed our perceptual processing.

Verbal Skills & Fluency

Language and music processing share overlapping neural architecture (especially pitch variation and timing contours). This allows melodic interventions to scaffold verbal and reading development in children. But also to enable recovery in adults who’ve lost speech access from trauma or stroke [5].

Lyric memorization simultaneously builds vocabulary and challenges information sequencing skills as well.

Music Therapy Mechanisms: How Sound Enhances Cognition

Clearly, music listening isn’t just a pleasurable distraction. It induces tangible neurochemical and metabolic processes, actively enhancing mental performance. Let’s unpack some key mechanisms powering the cognitive upsides:

Harmonizing Brain Wave Patterns

Our neuronal oscillations follow characteristic frequency patterns depending on current activity and arousal. More alert problem-solving modes trend towards beta and gamma waves. While memory consolidation and restorative sleep shift towards slower alpha and theta waves [6].

Music can “nudge” our intrinsic rhythmicity towards states optimized for specific cognitive tasks. Upbeat classical pieces couple mental energy and laser focus for cramming new info. While carefully constructed playlists align oscillations for deep meditation and efficient overnight memory integration [7].

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Neurochemical Optimization

Our cognitive experience also closely relates to neurotransmitter activity fluctuating minute to minute. Music enhances motivation and mood via boosted dopamine. Improves calculating accuracy and recall by elevating acetylcholine [8]. And potentially eases anxiety and brain fog by optimizing inhibitory GABA levels [9].

Again we can actively harness our brain’s chemical responses to audio cues. Carefully curating playlists to align with desired cognitive states.

Check out our list of Best Nootropics for Studying, which often work by optimizing key learning neurotransmitters like acetylcholine. Many students find stacking gentle musical stimulation further amplifies these brain chemicals for peak cognitive performance.

Structural & Functional Changes

Finally – long-term musical practice strengthens brain connectivity, enabling complex audio-motor translation essential for virtuoso playing. But in turn, these reinforced networks also bolster general cognitive aptitudes like working memory, concentration, fluency, and planning [10]. Making music an impactful element of nurturing children’s emerging mental capabilities that last a lifetime.

In short, music shakes our neuronal snowglobe on multiple levels – eliciting immediate neurochemical shifts while also driving lasting structural rewiring for cognitive gains.

Applications in Neurological Conditions

While music benefits all brains, therapy interventions leverage its nuanced effects to support specific conditions:

Stroke Rehabilitation

Melodic interventions engage language regions despite trauma or infarction. Rhythm also assists in organizing the coordination challenges many stroke victims face, relearning movements like walking. Therapists personalize these techniques to target damaged areas aiming to restore function [11].

Using sound’s unmatched ability to spark neuroplastic changes, programs like Dynamic Neural Retraining take patients through structured protocols using vibration, music, and binaural beats to rebuild damaged pathways actively.

Dementia & Memory Disorders

Musical cues bring emotional associations back to life when traditional linguistic and episodic memories fade. Familiar songs act as the soundtrack, triggering recollection of meaningful personal events and relationships [12].

Coupled with movements like playing basic percussion instruments, it creates an engaging group flow activity supporting what capacities remain.

Depression & Anxiety

Customized playlists help tackle rumination tendencies in depression by challenging ingrained thought patterns. Upbeat instrumentation can also alleviate psychosomatic anxiety symptoms – easing muscle tension and calming cardiovascular stress responses [13]. Vocal interventions simultaneously nurture self-expression and social confidence.

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Structuring Your Own Musical “Prescriptions”

Clearly, professionals tailor music interventions to support specific neurological rehabilitation goals. But we can all benefit from more strategic integration of sound to enhance cognition.

Here are my top tips for building your own science-backed “music prescriptions”:

Assess Needs & Set Your Goals

What aspects of memory, attention, or reasoning could use a boost from your perspective? Define the cognitive targets upfront to allow playlist customization. Track progress week over week.

Refine Your Playlists

Not all music universally lifts brainpower for all tasks. Upbeat classical pieces couple mental energy and laser focus for learning. While slowly layered ambient tracks prime your mind for deep reflective thinking. Maximize your genre, tempo, and instrumentation selections to align with each cognitive aim.

Services like Somavedic algorithmically generate tailored sound environments designed to ease stress, energize focus, or harmonize sleep cycles using your feedback on what works best.

Complement With Lifestyle Fine-tuning

Dial in diet, activity levels, rest intervals, and hydration to work synergistically with your music interventions. For example, calming ketone bodies by following a modified keto diet can amplify relaxation responses. While cognitive fuels like Performance Lab Mind provide acetylcholine to capitalize on music’s stimulation.

Analyze Impacts

Notice both the immediate and downstream influences on your metrics using apps like Lumen Metabolism Tracker. Did a mid-day floating classical reprieve improve your heart rate variability (HRV), suggesting better resilience to afternoon stressors? Did a pre-bed symphony synchronized with deep sleep stages leave you more recharged upon waking?

Iteratively crafting your own playlists based on measured reactions allows continual optimization.

The exciting truth is we’re only beginning to scrape the surface of music therapy’s near-universal cognitive benefits. Consistently incorporating structured sound interventions builds momentum, compounding Spotify’s pleasures with lasting boosts in reasoning, memory, and beyond!

As both a doctor of functional nutrition and a musician, I love exploring these potent intersections of science and art. Have you noticed music enhancing your own productivity, memory or creativity? Share your experiences below!

I’d be also happy to offer further personalized guidance crafting your own tailored “music prescriptions” just reach out!. Here’s to unleashing the full cognitive potential of your favorite tunes!


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  • 2. Fauvel, B., Groussard, M., Eustache, F., Desgranges, B., & Platel, H. (2013). Neural implementation of musical expertise and cognition. Brain and cognition, 83(2), 119-127.
  • 3. Zuk, J., Benjamin, C., Kenyon, A., & Gaab, N. (2014). Behavioral and neural correlates of executive functioning in musicians and non-musicians. PloS one, 9(6), e99868.
  • 4. Salimpoor, V. N., Zald, D. H., Zatorre, R. J., Dagher, A., & McIntosh, A. R. (2015). Predictions and the brain: how musical sounds become rewarding. Trends in cognitive sciences, 19(2), 86-91.
  • 5. Schlaug, G., Marchina, S., & Norton, A. (2008). From singing to speaking: why singing may lead to recovery of expressive language function in patients with Broca’s aphasia. Music perception, 25(4), 315-323.
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  • 7. Antony, J. W., Gobel, E. W., O’Hare, J. K., Reber, P. J., & Paller, K. A. (2012). Cued memory reactivation during sleep influences skill learning. Nature neuroscience, 15(8), 1114-1116.
  • 8. Chanda, M. L., & Levitin, D. J. (2013). The neurochemistry of music. Trends in cognitive sciences, 17(4), 179-193.
  • 9. Briggs SW, Galanopoulou AS. Altered GABA Signaling in Early Life Epilepsies. Neural Plast. 2011;2011:527605. Published online 2011 Jul 31. doi:10.1155/2011/527605.
  • 10. Herholz, S. C., & Zatorre, R. J. (2012). Musical training as a framework for brain plasticity: behavior, function, and structure. Neuron, 76(3), 486-502.
  • 11. Schlaug, G., Marchina, S., & Norton, A. (2008). Evidence for plasticity in white-matter tracts of patients with chronic Broca’s aphasia undergoing intense intonation-based speech therapy. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1169, 385-394.
  • 12. McDermott, O., Crellin, N., Ridder, H. M., & Orrell, M. (2013). Music therapy in dementia: a narrative synthesis systematic review. International journal of geriatric psychiatry, 28(8), 781-794.
  • 13. Erkkilä, J., Punkanen, M., Fachner, J., Ala-Ruona, E., Pöntiö, I., Tervaniemi, M., Vanhala, M., & Gold, C. (2011). Individual music therapy for depression: randomised controlled trial. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 199(2), 132-139.

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Erik Abramowitz is a certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP), Naturopathic Doctoral student, health coach, and father. He is the primary content creator for and the host of the Holistic Nootropics Podcast.

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