by Deane Alban

We intuitively know what scientists are now proving – that music helps you remember, get smarter, and live longer. Let’s take a look at how music helps us remember, how music is being used to rehabilitate the brain, and how it can lead to a longer, happier life.

Music Is in Our Genes

All cultures have music. The oldest known musical instrument is a 40,000 year old flute carved from a bone. Further, music has been universally used to help people remember language and stories significant to that culture. A remnant of that is teaching our children nursery rhymes.

And it appears we are genetically programmed to respond to music. Babies in the womb react differently to music they like and don’t like. Young brains that are exposed to music also build more neural pathways, possibly leading to higher intelligence. For example, one popular study has found that listening to Mozart has led to higher scores on intelligence tests. Findings like this have led to a theory called the “Mozart effect,” where playing Mozart to babies before and after birth is believed to make them smarter.

How Music Effects the Brain

Listening to music is complicated. It’s said to be one of the few activities that requires using both sides of the brain simultaneously.

The creative right side of the brain resonates with the melody, harmony, and pitch, while the left side analyses changes in frequency, rhythm, and intensity. We play music and then the music plays us, bringing our emotions to the surface.

Listening to music can lead to improved focus, memory, attention, language skills, and physical coordination.

Playing music is even better for mental development than passively listening to music. Kids who join a band or learn to play an instrument develop better memories than children with no musical training.

Albert Einstein attributed his great intelligence to playing the violin and would turn to music when he needed help solving a problem.

Music as Brain Therapy

There is an entire field of music therapy. Stroke victims who listen to music have faster recoveries and improved verbal memory and attention spans compared to those not exposed to regular music. Songs can help create new speech pathways in the brain that circumvent damaged regions.

After Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot in the head, she had to relearn how to talk. Music therapy played an important part in this. By layering words on top of melody and rhythm, she trained her brain to use new neural pathways to regain her speech.

Giving seniors with Alzheimer’s or dementia an iPod can greatly improve their lives. Music helps to fill their days, brings many of them out of their shells, and rekindles memories. As one patient revealed in the documentary about music and Alzheimer’s, Alive Inside, “music surrounds me with a band of love, of dreams”.

Dancing is associated with a significant reduction in the risk of dementia. It’s not sure whether it’s the physical exercise, the mental challenge of learning new moves, or the social aspect that helps, but it could be a synergistic effect of all three.

Music and Longevity

Can music make you live longer? It seems very likely that it can.

Orchestra conductors are known to be a particularly long-lived group. There are many theories as to why they have such long lives and often can work well past normal retirement age. One is that they are doing what they love and spend much of their time surrounded by a wall of beautiful, complex sound. This can lead to new neural connections and greater intelligence.

Live classical music can create a brain wave state similar to meditation. Music lovers sometimes fall asleep at concerts because they are deeply relaxed, not because they are bored!

Here are some anecdotal examples of how a life of music can extend your life. Hard to believe, but true:

• After decades of smoking, drinking, drugging, and rock’n’rolling, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger are alive, performing, and still remember the words to their songs. It must be the music. Seriously. With this kind of hard living, these guys really should be dead.

• The world’s oldest chorus girl is 85 year young Dorothy Dale Kloss. She and the rest of the Palm Springs Follies cast sing and dance (at the same time!), putting on 10 shows per week. If you ever have the chance, you simply must see this show. All the performers are 60 and older. It is one of the most inspiring and fun evenings you’ll ever have. Until you can catch the show, enjoy watching this short video spotlighting this season’s show.

• A group of regular New England senior citizens get together to belt out rock songs. There is nothing they won’t tackle. Watching them perform instills completely new meaning into songs like Golden Years (David Bowie), Stayin’ Alive (Bee Gees), and Road to Nowhere (Talking Heads). You can watch them rehearse and perform in the award-winning documentary Young@Heart. I can’t recommend this video enough. You can rent it from Netflix or buy it on Amazon. I enjoyed it so much, I watched it twice back-to-back! Enjoy this trailer, then watch the movie.

The World of Music for Free

Having an extensive music collection used to cost a small fortune. Most of us have gone through several collections. I’ve collected and replaced records, 8 tracks, cassettes, CDs, and now am settling into digital music. Two ways I access digital music for free is with Spotify and Pandora.

• Pandora lets you create your own radio stations. You create a channel by adding seed songs or artists, then, using a complex musical algorithm, Pandora plays other songs it thinks you will like. You get to give a thumbs up or down to any song to help refine your personalised station. You can also listen to Pandora’s preset stations by genre. I like Pandora because you’ll always hear new music that you like and it displays lyrics of the songs. I listen on my PC and on my TV.

• Spotify lets you choose from its library of millions of tracks to create your own playlists that you can access on your computer, home audio system, or mobile phone. All you need is a Facebook account to get started. I like Spotify because I can create playlists of exactly the songs I want to hear.

We can’t all be 85 year old showgirls like Dorothy Dale Kloss, but you can belt out a few tunes while driving or in the shower or break out into an occasional dance around the house. You can even sign up for those guitar or tango lessons you’ve always wanted to take.

Surround yourself with music you love. Singing, dancing, listening to music, and playing music can all add years to your life and life to your years.