Music and Our Brains

Christina Rodriguez

By Leslie D. Green

Changing minds and bodies through musical experience

The Ford Motor Company Fund recognizes that creativity and artistic expression enrich lives and inspire innovation and that communities which support and provide access to the arts are stronger for it. In this collection of stories, we share how and why music affects us at all ages and stages of our lives.

Cristina Rodriguez, on the right, holding a ukelele, and Lauren Koff, third from left, holding a green microphone with Mind&Melody music enrichment specialists. Photo by Amanda Smith Photography

As a young student, Cristina Rodriguez adored music. But when a teacher announced a donation of instruments would allow her school to start an orchestra, she was unsure what to expect.

Then Rodriguez picked up the cello. And soon, she was smitten.

In high school, Rodriguez discovered the string instrument wasn’t the only thing that charmed her. She was fascinated by the way music touched people’s brains: How all the members of the orchestra had high grade-point averages; how most of the students in her honors and AP courses participated in the arts; and how time seemed to stop when she created music and played her cello.

“You are present the whole time you are playing and can’t really worry about anything,” Rodriguez said. In her teens, she volunteered at hospitals and conceived of various ways to share with others the comfort music gave her.

Years later, while working on her thesis for degrees in biochemistry and pre-med at Florida Atlantic University, Rodriguez found a way to combine her loves of music and medical science to help those in need.

In 2014, she and classmate Lauren Koff founded Mind&Melody to bring interactive music programs to individuals experiencing neurological impairment, such as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, autism and Down syndrome. Based in Miami, Fla., the nonprofit engages musicians who perform music that represents patients’ favorite eras and personal cultures to help reengage their static minds and improve their cognitive and motor skills.

Mind and Melody music specialist demonstrates didgeridoo to elder adults

Ashlie, a Mind&Melody music enrichment specialist, demonstrates the didgeridoo an indigenous Australian instrument to older adults. Participants are fascinated by the sound and shape of the instrument.  Photo by Amanda Smith Photography

“They play a song that brings back memories for the patient,” Rodriguez explained, adding that the brain stores emotional memories in a different way from how it stores regular memories.

While listening to or playing music hasn’t been shown to prevent dementia or cognitive impairments, Rodriguez explained that music can reach hidden areas spared by diseases like Alzheimer’s and help patients reunite with the world around them.

Rodriguez recalled a formerly active married couple whose age-related cognitive difficulties made it difficult for them to connect with people. When the pair started therapy with Mind&Melody, they were able to socialize again.

“It helps them connect better with friends and family,” Rodriguez said. “They talk through music. It keeps their brains active and keeps them socially active.”

Violinist Diane McElfish Helle launched a similar program for the Grand Rapids Symphony. Her Music for Health Initiative at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Mich., partners musicians with medical professionals to provide music therapy for people with myriad health issues. McElfish Helle has called the nonprofit agency her most important endeavor as a professional musician. In 2017, she received the Ford Musician Award for Excellence in Community Service from the League of American Orchestras for her work.

Musical chemistry

In addition to creating chemical reactions in the brain, researchers have also found that music produces a sense of comradery, or unity.

Ever notice that it only takes two or three claps to get thousands of people at a concert to synchronize their claps or foot taps on beat?

Research going back to naturalist and biologist Charles Darwin suggests that our ancestors were more fit to mate if they were able to not just feed, protect and provide for a family, but also were able to sing or make music in a pleasant way. Musical abilities, scientists contend, stimulate cohesion, which helped groups hunt for large game, outlast predators, and better survive the savage world where survival most often only was for the fittest.

Now, music-generated cohesion plays a role in community building and work productivity, according to four economists from Cornell University. They examined music’s impact on cooperation by having three groups of participants make decisions based on how much they would or would not pool resources with other people in the lab.

Kevin Kniffin, co-author of the 2016 study, reported music in the workplace can cause conflicts if people dislike the selections played. However, Kniffin said his research team found “a rhythm that was a common qualifier of happy music” and streamed that for one group. At the same time, they streamed unhappy music for the second group and did not stream any music for the control group.

Kniffin and the Cornell researchers found that those who received the established happy music had better moods and persistently higher levels of cooperative behavior. Meanwhile, the control group, which heard no music, and those who heard unhappy music, were less inclined to cooperate with colleagues.

Regardless of one’s workplace, medical diagnosis, age or stage of life, Mind&Melody’s Rodriguez said an important “chemical thing” happens when you listen to music, play an instrument or sing.

“If you’re having a terrible day or month, music is comforting,” Rodriguez said. “It can bring you back and ground you.”


Music’s Physical Benefits

Music initiates brainstem responses that normalize heart rate, pulse, blood pressure, body temperature, skin conductance, and muscle tension in people of all ages, according to Mona Lisa Chanda and Daniel J. Levitin, authors of a 2013 study conducted at McGill University of Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Infants and children

• By routinely playing familiar music to premature babies, who are prone to neurodevelopmental disorders that include learning difficulties, doctors can enhance connectivity in the brain, according to researchers at the University of Geneva and University Hospitals of Geneva, Switzerland.

• Music therapy has been shown to help children with cancer cope with the stress of treatment by improving mood and relaxation and reducing exhaustion and anxiety.

• People begin developing affection for music in the womb through exposure to their mother’s heartbeat. And learning rhythms and melodies begins during the third trimester of development.

• A few years of music practice thickens part of the corpus callosum, a band of nerve fibers dividing the brain’s left and right hemispheres and integrates sensory processing between the two. As a result, music and musical training can foster academic and life skills in children.

Aging and neurological disorders

• The Johns Hopkins Center for Music and Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, recently completed a 12-week study where 24 people with Parkinson’s disease played the guitar. They found the patients’ shaky hands, moods and levels of anxiety improved. Moreover, patients who participated in a study involving drum circle classes and choir singing lessons reported having a better quality of life, including enhanced communication with loved ones because of the classes.

• Group drumming counteracted age-related deterioration of immune functioning, in one study Chanda and Levitin cited.

• Music therapy creates entrainment, a simultaneous activation of neurons in disparate parts of the brain. So, even if we are not tapping, clapping, playing or singing along to music, scientists have found that our brains recognize and keep up with the beat. Knowing this, researchers are looking at how they can individualize the use of music in medicine to help people with motor-system disorders, like Parkinson’s.

Heart health

• Medical trials around the country have found that listening to music can help people to exercise longer during cardiac stress tests, cause heart rate and blood pressure to return more quickly to baseline levels after physical activity and alleviate anxiety in heart attack survivors.


• Scientists are exploring whether music played during surgery causes surgical teams to provide better care or whether the music is directly helping patients, even those under anesthesia. Either way, music played during surgery and post-surgery has been found to improve moods by decreasing cortisol levels and reduce sedation, pain and infections.

This story was originally published at The Ford Motor Company Fund supports a range of music-rich programming, including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, the Sphinx Organization, The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the League of American Orchestras in Washington, D.C., the GRAMMY Museum’s GRAMMY in the Schools program and Latin GRAMMY Cultural Foundation’s Latin GRAMMY in The Schools program.

Read more about why music matters

Information is education. Helps us learn. Share your views today.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.