What Kind Of Music Stimulates The Brain The Most?


Welcome to Better Brain Fitness, hosted by doctors Josh Turknett and Tommy Wood. In this podcast, we will explore the frontiers of how to keep our brain fit and healthy so that we can perform at our best and do the things we love for as long as possible. Let’s go. Hello everybody. Welcome back to another episode of the Better Brain Fitness podcast. I’m Tommy Wood and I’m joined by my Neuroplastic Co host, Dr josh Techner.

00:32 : Say hello, Josh. Hello Josh. I’d set you up for that one. We have a question from Lou in Illinois who asks what types of music listening stimulates the brain more, and he gives us a list of different options but basically the question boils down to complex orchestral pieces, lots of instruments, individual instruments or music that’s new to us. Is there any difference in terms of how those types of music stimulate the brain? Yes i like this question, Lou. I think it came in response to when I released the first track from Neurotrophia which is a new project from Brain Joe Studios that the idea being to create music that’s designed to enhance its brain benefits and kind of just to explore that idea and the brain benefits in particular of just listening to music and one of those particular benefits being cognitive stimulation.

01:33 : And if you want to learn more about neurotrophia, then I’ll put a link in the show notes. So some people may find it surprising to think about listening to music as a cognitive stimulus or as a cognitive activity. You know, in part because it feels really good and it doesn’t feel like work, doesn’t feel like you’re doing anything hard. Though again, it’s important for us to remember that pleasure is our brains way of rewarding us for doing things that are good for us and good for it. But as I’ve written about elsewhere, I think you can make a very compelling case that the pleasure that we experience from music, in particular listening to it, is our brains way of telling us that it’s really good for us and that one of the central values it is really good cognitive stimulus.

02:21 : And then thanks to this phenomenon of demand coupling also means that it’s good for the health of the brain and so has this ability to restore and rejuvenate brain tissue. But again, I imagine that the average person listening doesn’t really think of music as a form of cognitive stimulation. But, you know, music at its essence is just pattern sound, and it’s really patterns upon patterns things like pitch and harmony and rhythm and melody and meter and song structure, all of these different patterns that your brain is unpacking while you’re listening to it. And the reward we get comes from recognizing those patterns and then using them to predict what’s coming next.

03:03 : And this ability to identify patterns and the information that it processes and then use that to predict, you know, what’s going to happen next is kind of the core capability of human cognition. But I think that the important thing to keep in mind for this particular question is that listening to music is a learned skill in exactly the same way as learning a language so just as we acquire our native language, we also most of us acquire our native music so every musical tradition, you know, utilizes its own scale or set of rules as to how music is put together. In the West, ours is centered around what’s known as the Western chromatic scale, with our octaves divided into 12 notes and then our major and minor scales containing 7 notes.

03:54 : But other musical traditions, you know, utilize different scales, and there are great many across the world. And so just as we all, you know, have to learn the sounds and the rules of our own language, we also have to learn the sounds and the rules and the music that we listen to. And that, of course, requires building, you know, the neural structures that can do that. And just like language, we do that by listening to lots of music and while our nonconscious bits are analyzing and decoding all of those patterns upon patterns, and so not surprisingly, you know, functional imaging is also revealed that just listening to music involves our whole brain.

04:32 : So not just our sort of primary auditory cortex, which you would imagine, but also, you know, auditory association cortex and temporal lobes you have motor cortex, basal ganglia, cerebellum, frontal lobes get recruited so almost the entire brain is involved in decoding musical stimuli and this widely distributed way. So back to the original fact question about, you know what factors in music are likely to provide the most stimulation. So again, we’re kind of looking at this as if we’re optimizing for cognitive stimulation since there are there are multiple benefits beyond that to music.

05:15 : And so one of those would just be pattern density, right the more complex it is, the more patterns there are, the more complex melodically, harmonically, rhythmically, right you’re likely going to see greater stimulation since there’s more work for the brain to do in that scenario. But I think perhaps the most important factor in Lou actually asked about this and his question is our familiarity with it or how novel it is. And then you can, you can kind of think of the novelty factor as along a spectrum, right so the most familiar things, the least novel are the songs in the music that we’ve listened to all our lives and we know really well, right the next might be a new song in a familiar genre and then it would be a song we in A in a genre we don’t typically listen to.

06:01 : And then lastly would be something that’s in an entirely different musical tradition that uses an entirely different set of rules, like a foreign language. Along that spectrum, The more novel, the likely the greater amount of stimulus there is, because there’s more for the brain to do, more for, the more that has to be done in order for it to or for the brain to understand that particular piece of music. I think another thing that’s worth noting though, is that music that you’ve listened to for years can also be a source of stimulation if you change what you attend to or care about in that music or if you’re trying to develop a new perceptual skill or ability so that, you know, as listeners, we most commonly kind of perceive music as kind of a gestalt or as a whole unit or a discrete entity yet, you know, we know it’s composed of all of these different components and learning to identify those, you know it.

06:56 : That and of itself can be a really good perceptual training tool so for example, you could, you know, start listening to try to pick out the particular instruments in a piece of music you know, if it’s a classical piece, you can, you know, see if you can find the, you know, the violins, the violas, the cello, the bass, you know, the piccolos, the oboes. If you’re a long time rock music fan, you can start trying to identify the particular guitars being played during the solos, right? Also listening for identifying different instruments, timbres and so forth.

07:27 : But this is also how learning to play music can be such a great stimulus, because that also involves the creation of an entirely new set of perceptual skills. So you’ll sort of naturally start thinking about new features and music, even music you’ve been listening to for a long time so things like the key, the intervals, chord changes, you know, melodic contour, rhythm and meter. So these elements are very useful for you to be able to distinguish as a musician, but not nearly so important as just a casual listener. Casual quotation marks. Now you have this entirely new set of perceptual capabilities that you need to develop.

08:06 : So you and your brain starts caring about learning to identify new patterns in music you’ve been listening to but just didn’t previously care about identifying those things than before. That’s a way of introducing novelty into, you know, music that’s you’ve been listening to for long periods of time. So as I said, you know, our enjoyment from music comes from having built the neural structures that allow us to decode it, to allow us to find those patterns and predict new ones.

08:35 : So that’s why we find familiar music more enjoyable. And I think here we start to run into one of the central issues that likely fuels cognitive decline with age, which is what we’ve talked about before. And it’s this drop in cognitive stimulation over our lifespan as a driving factor. And one reason for that is there are just so many different things that sort of push us against or make us resist new learning. And one of those being that once we’ve mastered, you know, the skills needed to be independent adults, we don’t have to learn anything new so for example, you know, once we’ve with our native language, right, it’s a huge stimulus when we’re young, much less so once we’ve learned it.

09:22 : And as adults, we don’t have to learn another one. You know, unless we’re moving to a foreign country, there’s no real incentive or need to put in the work of learning a new language. And same applies to music. We learn our musical system when we’re very young, and then we can use those neural structures that we’ve built to enjoy that music for the rest of our lives without ever having to learn another system, even though that’s probably the only thing that would kind of truly replicate the stimulation we got as children in that particular domain. And we also resist listening to stuff that’s outside of our preferred genre ones, things that we’ve been listening to most of our lives.

10:02 : The irony being, the reason those things are our favorites is because we’ve been listening to them for so long and built those strict structures for decoding them and understanding them. And we know, you know, every generation dislikes the music of the, you know, the of the next one. And that’s the large part, I think, because of this phenomenon. And we also know that most people tend to listen throughout their lives mainly to the music that was around during their formative years. You know, when hormones and emotions are raging and so the music of that time elicits very strong feelings, and it’s music we understand so it’s very emotionally charged there’s nothing, you know, nothing about it being inherently better, everything to do with the fact that our brain understands it and it has this sort of strong emotional connotation.

10:50 : So one of the great challenges of maintaining adequate cognitive stimulation as adults is the fact that we build our perceptual systems for decoding the natural world from scratch as children, which is a gigantic undertaking, an enormous stimulus so replicating that particular stimulus of building new perceptual systems as adults is really hard. But music is 1 fantastic way to do so, especially in the auditory realm. This is also another reason why certain genres of music kind of naturally have fewer listeners or fans than others.

11:29 : For example, you know, jazz is tends to be less popular than pop music because fewer people have kind of built the neural apparatus that’s needed to kind of decode it and fully appreciate it. And there’s, you know, there are lots of stepping stones that you kind of have to pass through along the way to get to that point where it starts to feel good. This podcast is brought to you by the Brain Joe Academy. The Brain Joe Academy provides brain boosting whole brain stimulation in the form of neuroscience based musical instruction designed for adult brains and with no prior musical experience required.

12:08 : Start your brain boosting musical journey today at Brain Joe dot Academy. Because music you know listening is a learned skill, the experience of it from one person to the next is likely entirely different. So it’s contingent upon, you know, the particular set of structures they’ve built to analyze music and not that it, you know, not that it sounds the same to each person and one person says I don’t like that sound, the person says I like that sound, but rather the actual experience of that music isn’t going to be different from one brain to the next. All that to say what’s going to be stimulating and most stimulating for you is going to be highly individual, you know, as is what we most everything we talk about in this podcast.

12:58 : But hopefully this conversation, you know, gives you a framework for identifying the kinds of music that would be most simulating for you, or the ways in which you can utilize music for its kind of cognitive stimulation value. In the exact same way as you know, asking what language is going to be most stimulating it’s going to depend on the ones that you already know. And if you take away one thing here is that spending some time listening to music that’s different than what you typically listen to or trying to listen for new things in the music you already listen to is probably the most impactful, at least in my opinion, the most impactful thing that you could do from a stimulation standpoint.

13:39 : And of course this applies to everything when it comes to, you know, cognitive stimulation is looking for, you know, new complex skills where you’re still a relative not novice if you recall from the recent episode on how much skill is enough, we talked about the key being trying to kind of trying to always find or have a complex skill you’re learning where you’re still in the very earlier parts of the of the learning curve curve. We’ve mastered the ability to decode the music we’ve been listening to all of our lives so listening to unfamiliar music is a perfect example of a complex skill where you’re still a relative novice and so still kind of reaping the greatest brain benefits from it.

14:24 : Yeah this is great but very interesting and some random thoughts came to mind that I’m going to throw at you the parts where you talk about the, you know the pleasure associated with things that are good for the brain. I wondered how that translated over to some things that perhaps are expected but could be or are unexpected, could be unpleasant but could provide novel stimulus so music that might be an unexpected key change, or the use of dissonance, which the first time you hear it can be quite unpleasant.

15:04 : I wonder how you thought about those musical techniques in terms of how they might stimulate the brain. Yeah, that’s a good one and how those things land are going to be very individual. So you know, if so there’s an expectation you know, if you were listening to mostly listen to pop music, you know, you’re not going to expect like some dissonance to just come out of nowhere, Right so and there’s also this kind of Goldilocks zone for that where we like some element of surprise, like our brain pays attention when a prediction is wrong and so that can be a good thing you don’t want that to be the entire experience because you fatigue of that pretty quickly.

15:52 : But certainly composers and songwriters use that to their advantage, to the fact that if you know, if you’re leading someone down a path and then you just come up with some surprise, they’re going to take notice of that, right? But you there’s kind of a zone of adjacent possibility of what people will accept as that’s okay in that territory and we’ll find kind of, oh, that was interesting, right rather than rather than all that, what the heck was that i’m moving on.

16:22 : And then, like you said, then you start to like once you’ve learned the piece, then you kind of look forward to that little part, like that little unexpected bit and that’s part of the fun of it as well. But yeah, I think trying to navigate that space that, you know, of what’s acceptable like prediction violations, is actually a very fun thing when you’re writing music and you’re thinking about it from that, from that perspective so then, that’s great, and a little bit more niche perhaps.

16:59 : My musical tastes are pretty eclectic i think I enjoy things from many decades or centuries across recent human history at least although I will say that hip hop died like 10 or 15 years ago other than that, there’s a lot of things that I that I enjoy. So I listen to a lot of classical music. I also enjoy and listen to a lot of electronic dance music, drum and bass in particular. I’ve heard people talk about the fact that music created using traditional instruments, say baroque string instruments versus electronically, the frequencies are slightly different.

17:45 : You know the because the way the sound is generated is different do you have any thoughts about whether the way we’re making music now is affecting the brain differently from how it was made two or three hundred years ago? That’s interesting i don’t have a lot of like informed opinion on that, but I can certainly it will say a there is going to be a difference, right what is the nature of that difference is the question and whether or not the music that’s synthesized or electronic is as complex of a stimulus as a naturally produced sound is an interesting question.

18:23 : And certainly like probably early on early electronic music that was a sort of a compressed version of what you’d hear in the natural world, right so from that standpoint less of a stimulus in that regard. The other thing about just the electronic music in general thing makes me think of is that there are, as I alluded to, different brain benefits of music and cognitive stimulation just being one of those. Another one is its ability to facilitate entirely new brain states right in the in the same, you know, in the same manner as a drug or even a psychedelic or whatever that you can access.

19:05 : You know, brain states that are kind of hard to do so otherwise or at least kind of facilitate you getting into that which is a whole another use but a really potentially good one so whereas you know something in the e d m space that’s super repetitive and may not may not be from the cognitive stimulation standpoint as stimulating as a you know, listening to a Symphony Orchestra, it may have a different benefit in terms of the ability to facilitate a distinct brain state it’s hard to access otherwise so another one of the really to me interesting uses of music and I just one of the reasons for starting the whole neurotrophy thing is I just think it’s such an under explored area, it’s a game level intervention.

19:51 : We’ve been manipulating our brains with music for hundreds of thousands of years likely and you know doing it not in a in a rigorous scientific way, but that’s really what we’re doing is figuring out how to manipulate all these features to generate all these different experiences. But you know, we haven’t done a whole lot in the realm of looking that, at looking at that, you know, scientifically and seeing how we can further leverage all of these things that music can do for our health and wellbeing. I think that makes that that’s a great answer to a question that you didn’t know was coming so I appreciate that the brain states thing is certainly you know that’s how I use music is to put myself in different States and so particularly certain types of repetitive electronic music or what I would what I use to help they help me focus so I achieve some state of flow or similar to that if I’m particularly if I’m writing or when I’m doing surgeries in the lab nobody else in the so when I’m doing surgeries I’m the surgeon so I get to pick the music obviously.

21:01 : So i’ll usually pick some kind of chilled or liquid drum and bass type album or playlist and everybody else finds it very energizing and I’m like how can you listen to this like it’s going but for me it just I tune it out but it just helps me achieve this state of flow and that’s exactly, that’s exactly how I use it so I think that you’re right, there’s a whole bunch that we don’t know there, but using music to manipulate brain states is something that that’s really super interesting.

21:36 : Your story is also an illustration of the differential effects, right? It entirely depends on the apparatus that you’ve constructed. Exactly how that’s going to impact your brain is going to be different than someone else’s. Great point, okay well, great question, Lou appreciate it. If you guys have any others for us, please send them our way brainjo.academy/questions and we will see you guys in the next episode. Thank you, Tommy.