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The Effect of Music on Cognition

Music is a powerful form of art that can yield multiple benefits on us such as improving cognition, memory, physical functioning, and our emotional experiences. The benefits of music can by produced through listening, creating, and playing music, singing, and even dancing to it. Researchers have considered it an enjoyable and meaningful leisure activity that can create diverse experiences on the human brain (e.g., sensory, motor, cognitive, and emotion).  Thus, it is a beneficial tool that can be used as part of the recovery process of a brain injury survivor to help rehabilitate functions that may have been lost.   

Brain imaging has shown that brain areas that are activated by music are also involved in processing language, auditory perception, cognition (e.g., attention and memory), executive functioning, and motor control as well. Music that activates these shared systems can facilitate interactions between these complex processes. 

For example, music can affect our brains bilaterally (both hemispheres) or through the left or right hemisphere. Therefore, for individuals who have been affected on one side of their brain, music may be able to make neural pathways more flexible to train or relearn function. Music has been used with brain injury survivors in a variety of in addition to improving their cognition, such as treating seizures, improving motor skills, and speech. 

A 2012 study conducted by Särkämo and Soto from the University of Helsinki found that patients who had a stroke and listened to music daily showed improvements in memory (auditory and verbal), attention, and their moods in comparison to patients that listened to an audiobook or no music at all.  They also found that listening to music can create structural gray matter changes during the early stages of patients who had a stroke.

Additionally, they found that listening to pleasant music can have short-term effects on improving visual awareness for stroke patients with visual neglect. Evidence has also shown that improvements in cognition can be a result of the improved mood individuals experience through the changes music creates in the dopaminergic mesolimbic system (also known as the pleasure or reward system in the brain) that is responsible for our emotional and cognitive processes. Thus, the long-term benefits that are seen on individuals’ cognitive processes can be from our improved emotional states which are interrelated. 

Furthermore, past studies have discussed a phenomenon called the “Mozart effect” that is believed create short-term improvements on individuals’ spatial abilities after listening to Mozart’s music. However, these results are small and unreliable. The other finding is that formal training in music can create nonmusical benefits mentioned earlier (e.g. spatial, mathematical, and linguistic). 

In conclusion, listening to music can be effective in the rehabilitation process, especially the early stages that can help individuals cope with the impacts of their injury and assist in their cognitive recovery process. Creating or listening to music can positively influence the individual’s environment which can increase their motivation, participation, behavioral activity and brain function. 

Different ways to incorporate the benefits of music can include: 

  • Dancing around to your favorite tunes during your breaks 
  • Listening to music that helps you feel relaxed while studying or reading 
  • Listening to meditation music (e.g., calming nature sounds)  
  • Singing your favorite song or playing an instrument 
  • Actively utilizing the music benefits such as creating or playing music either from playing an instrument or singing 


Altenmüller, E., Demorest, S. M., Fujioka, T., Halpern, A. R., Hannon, E. E., Loui, P., Majno, M., Oechslin, M. S., Osborne, N., Overy, K., Palmer, C., Peretz, I., Pfordresher, P. Q., Särkämö, T., Wan, C. Y., & Zatorre, R. J. (2012). Introduction to The Neurosciences and Music IV: Learning and Memory. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences1252(1), 1–16. 

Peretz, I. & Zatorre, R. J. (2003). The Cognitive Neuroscience of Music. OUP Oxford.  

Särkämö, T. & Soto, D. (2012). Music listening after stroke: beneficial effects and potential neural mechanisms: särkämö & soto. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences1252(1), 266–281. 

Thaut, M. & McIntosh, G. (2010). How music helps to heal the injured brain. Cerebrum Dana Foundation. 

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