Our brains are hard-wired for the benefits of music. Every time a musician practices, their brains rewire by strengthening synapses, building new neurons, and rebuilding the myelin sheath.

A neuroscientist at Oregon Health and Science University says music is a boon for virtually anyone who can carry a tune. In fact, he says our brains are hard-wired to the benefits of music.  “It turns out that practising a musical instrument might be the most difficult and challenging thing a human brain can do,” says Larry Sherman, Ph.D., a professor in the Division of Neuroscience at the Oregon National Primate Research Center at OHSU.

“You’re integrating sensory and fine motor skills, gross motor skills. You’re holding your instrument, moving your fingers. You’re doing all these things, and it’s rewiring your brain.”

Sherman, who has given presentations on the benefits of music, says the act of practising music can help generate neurons, strengthen the connections between brain cells called synapses, and rebuild the myelin sheaths that enable transmission of electrical signals between cells.

“This is an amazing thing that our brain is doing,” he says. “It’s re-wiring itself and remaking itself every time we practise music.”

He says that playing music together in a group may be even more beneficial. Magnetic resonance imaging has shown that music triggers a cascade of neurotransmitters, such as endorphins and dopamine, which are associated with positive feelings.

These neurotransmitters can relieve pain and also foster a feeling of communal belonging. The bigger the group, the bigger the effect.

“I always tell people, if only we could get Congress to sing together,” Sherman says.

Further he says, there’s a case to be made that the communal activity of playing music together has likely bound human communities together for thousands of years. “The fact that we’ve found flutes in Neanderthal caves means something,” he says.

Sherman’s own research focuses on neurodegeneration, especially in conditions such as multiple sclerosis in which myelin, the protective coating around the nerve fibres in the central nervous system, becomes damaged.
He has also worked to popularise neuroscience through a series of public presentations involving his own personal interest in music.