Music as Medicine: 6 Big Ideas to Help Keep You Motivated


I don’t think it’s a radical notion that music makes you feel better. But I’ve often wondered what science had to say about it, so I combed back through books and articles I’ve read over the years—and found some new ones—to pull together a list of surprising, mind-blowing, and just downright obvious facts about why music is good for your health. And if these are true in general, then they will obviously be doubly true for the “dancing flea,” a feel-good instrument if there ever was one! 

1. Music shapes our brain,” is how neurologist Oliver Sacks introduced the connection between music and health in his 2008 book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. Music may be so deeply ingrained in us because musical activity involves every part of the brain—the emotional, motor, and cognitive areas. And the positive effects occur whether you’re playing or just listening.

2. Mind exercise. It takes a lot of brain horsepower to process rhythm, melody, tonality, and timbre into music. A 2011 study from the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, used an MRI machine to show that listening to music activates and exercises every part of our brain, from the reptilian brainstem to the evolutionarily advanced neocortex, not to mention the complex neural networks that connect all the pieces. Neuroscientists say that playing is an even more powerful brain workout because fine motor skills are also required.

3. Best medicine. “There’s just something about music—particularly live music—that excites and activates the body,” explains Joanne Loewy, director of the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. There’s plenty of evidence that music relieves stress and fatigue, reduces heart rates, and improves a listener’s memory and cardiovascular function. Dozens of different studies show that music produces direct health benefits in everyone from preterm babies to the parents who sing them lullabies to seniors listening to their favorite musical hits.


4. Evolution! In This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of Human Obsession, neuro-scientist Daniel J. Levitin describes how music is the ultimate indicator of cognitive, emotional, and physical health, and might be the strongest evolutionary force to demonstrate fitness to a potential mate . . . or maybe just to make a friend.

5. Every culture sings for well-being, and always has. The connection between music and health shows up again and again across human cultures and across time. Songs of healing have been performed in countless cultures for eons. The Chinese character for medicine includes the character for music. Apollo, the classical Greek god, was responsible for both healing and music. And Plato noted how music is “imbued with power to penetrate into the very depths of the soul.”

6. Sympathy. A 2015 study by researchers at the University of Toronto found that children who attended ten months of ukulele lessons scored higher on measures of social and emotional skills—things like sympathy, altruism, and cooperation—than they did before the class and also compared to a control group of similar kids. I don’t know if it will work the same way for adults, but if playing music has any chance of increasing empathy and understanding, let’s go ahead and put a ukulele into the hands of everyone in the nation, and the world.

So go ahead and grab your uke! During tough and trying times, some of the best medicine available is already in your hands. There’s never a co-pay, no adverse side effects, and no prescription is needed.

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