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How to Use Music to Boost Motivation, Mood & Improve Learning

This transcript version is not in its final form and will be updated.

Andrew Huberman: Welcome to the Huberman Lab Podcast, where we discuss science and science based tools for everyday life.


I’m Andrew Huberman, and I’m a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford School of Medicine. Today, we are discussing music and your brain. However, this episode could have just as easily been entitled Music is Your Brain or Your Brain is Music., and that’s because music, believe it or not, is a neurological phenomenon. Most of us think of music as something that happens outside of us – the sounds we hear, the lyrics we hear, their meaning, how they anchor us to pieces of our history, both emotional or social. It turns out that when we listen to music, it activates nearly every piece of our brain. Moreover, when we listen to music, it activates our brain in ways that our brain itself, and indeed our body as well, help to create that music at the level of so-called neuro ensembles, that is, the firing of neurons.

In other words, when we listen to music, our brain and our body become part of the instrument that contributes to our perception of that music. Today, I’m going to make clear how all of that happens. We will also discuss how music can be leveraged towards shifting our brain states and our bodily states. For instance, what sorts of music to listen to in order to make ourselves happy. Yes, studies have been done on that, as well as how long to listen to music in order to shift our mood or our overall bodily state, including how to process feelings of sadness.

Many of you are probably familiar with particular songs that anchor us to particular times in our history or people in our history. And there’s an age-old question, really, as to whether or not listening to sad music can help us process our feelings of sadness, or whether or not they drive us further down the spiral of sadness and despair. And indeed, studies have explored this as well. So today I will explain how music, indeed, how different types of music activate different neural circuits in your brain to create different brain and bodily states, how we can leverage music toward things like emotional processing, shifting our emotions, as well as to enhance learning and memory. And we will also talk about the use of music to enhance brain plasticity, that is, your brain’s ability to change in response to experience, not just in response to that music, but rather using music as a tool to expand our capacity for neuroplasticity, giving us the ability to learn far more in other contexts and areas of life.

I confess that in researching this episode, I found myself continually delighted as to, first of all, how impressive the science of the study of music in the brain is. And secondly, how fundamental music is to all of our lives. And this is true whether or not you’re somebody who listens to music often, or you’re somebody that really prefers silence. Indeed, we will talk about whether or not it’s better to listen to music or remain in silence when you perform certain kinds of work. It turns out that there’s a very clear answer to that. If you want a little bit of a hint, it is best to listen to music in between bouts of work or during brief rest periods, as opposed to listening to music while you work.

And for those of you that listen to music while you work and thoroughly enjoy listening to music while you work, we will also discuss what that means about your brain in particular, because it’s likely that it got wired up that way at a particular phase of development. And each and all of you can learn today how to best leverage music toward productivity, but perhaps equally important, how to leverage music for enrichment and enjoyment of life.

I’m pleased to announce that we will be hosting three live events in Australia. All three events will cover science and science related tools for mental health, physical health, and performance. There will also be a live question and answer session. The first live event will take place on February 10th in Melbourne at the Plenary Theater. The second live event will take place on February 17th in Sydney at the Sydney Opera House, and the third event will take place on February 23rd in Brisbane at the Great Hall. To access tickets to any of these events, simply go to and use the code HUBERMAN. I hope to see you there. And last, but certainly not least, thank you for your interest in science.

Before we begin, I’d like to emphasize that this podcast is separate from my teaching and research roles at Stanford. It is, however, part of my desire and effort to bring zero cost to consumer information about science and science-related tools to the general public. In keeping with that theme, I’d like to thank the sponsors of today’s podcast.

Our first sponsor is Eight Sleep. Eight Sleep makes smart mattress covers with cooling, heating, and sleep tracking capacity. I’ve spoken many times before on this podcast about the fact that sleep, that is getting enough quality sleep each night, is the foundation of mental health, physical health, and performance. One of the key things to getting a great night’s sleep is to make sure that your body temperature drops by about one to three degrees at the beginning of the night. Indeed, that is how your body falls and stays deeply asleep as well. In order to wake up in the morning feeling refreshed, your bodily temperature needs to increase by about one to three degrees. Eight Sleep mattress covers make it extremely easy to control the temperature of your sleeping environment, allowing you to fall and stay deeply asleep throughout the night and to wake up feeling refreshed. I started sleeping on an Eight Sleep mattress cover well over two years ago, and it has completely transformed my sleep. It’s allowed me to fall asleep more quickly, it’s allowed me to sleep more deeply throughout the night, and if I happen to wake up during the middle of the night, something that’s perfectly normal to do once or even twice, I fall back asleep far more quickly and I wake up feeling refreshed. As a consequence, my mood, focus and alertness throughout the day is greatly elevated as compared to prior to sleeping on my Eight Sleep mattress cover. If you’d like to try an Eight Sleep mattress cover, you can go to to save $150 off their Pod 3 Cover. Eight Sleep currently ships in the USA, Canada, UK, select countries in the EU, and Australia. Again, that’s

Today’s episode is also brought to us by ROKA. ROKA makes eyeglasses and sunglasses that are of the absolute highest quality. I’ve spent a lifetime working on the biology of the visual system, and I can tell you that your visual system has to contend with an enormous number of challenges in order for you to be able to see clearly in different environments. ROKA understands the biology of the visual system and has designed their eyeglasses and sunglasses so that you always see with crystal clarity. Originally, their glasses were designed for performance, that is, for running and cycling and for sport, and indeed, they can still be used for performance. They won’t slip off your face if you get sweaty. They’re extremely lightweight. But I should mention that ROKA eyeglasses and sunglasses come in some of the aesthetics more typically associated with performance glasses, like those cyborg style glasses. But they also have a number of styles that you would be perfectly comfortable wearing out to dinner or to work. I wear readers at night or when I drive, and I wear sunglasses during the day if I happen to be driving into bright light or outside, and it’s just overwhelmingly bright. I do not wear sunglasses when I do my morning sunlight viewing to set my circadian rhythm, and I suggest that you do the same. If you’d like to try ROKA eyeglasses or sunglasses, you can go to and enter the code Huberman to save 20% off your first order. Again, that’s, and enter the code Huberman at checkout.

Okay, let’s talk about music and your brain, and to start off, I just want to take a step back and acknowledge something that is absolutely remarkable about music, which is, if you think about language, I could describe to you a glass. I could describe to you an apple. I could describe to you a story. I could describe to you a face. I could describe to you any number of different things and you could do the same for me. Language is essentially infinite in the number of things that it can explain and the ways that it can explain it. And yet, if you think about music, music, provided there are no lyrics in that music, can’t explain how a glass is shaped. It can’t even tell you that there’s a glass present in the room or on a table. It can’t tell you what a face looks like. It can’t tell you what that person who owns that face did or is doing.

So in some ways, you might think, wow, music is fairly diminished in terms of its qualitative depth compared to language. And yet, if you take a step back and think about what music can do, it’s astonishing, and it actually overwhelms what language can do. What can music do? Well, even in the absence of any lyrics, any words put to music, music can describe an emotion. In fact, music can describe numerous types of emotions. And it can do it with a lot of nuance. So, not just displaying, for us, happy or sad, but rather different degrees of happiness, different degrees of sadness. Music can be used to convey a sense of longing, a sense of nostalgia, a sense of delight, a sense of awe, and on and on. So whereas music can’t describe nouns very well, it can beautifully describe emotions. And not only can music describe emotions with a tremendous degree of nuance, music can evoke emotions with a tremendous degree of nuance.

Now, this is spectacular. And it’s not only spectacular, it is important, because as we move through today’s episode, you’ll soon come to realize that it’s very likely, and indeed, we have a lot of scientific evidence to support the fact that music evolved prior to spoken language. Moreover, it’s very likely that singing evolved prior to spoken language. And that music, singing and dance together evolved prior to language, making music, as well as singing and dance, but really just music, even on its own, in the absence of any lyrics or any bodily movement, as the fundamental form of human communication.

Indeed, music can evoke empathy. Again, we’re talking about music in the absence of any lyrics. And when I say music can evoke empathy, I’m not talking about the sort of empathy, where you look at somebody and nod and understand, so-called cognitive empathy, which is important, by the way, in relational dynamics or emotional empathy, where you’re actually feeling what the other person is feeling. But of course, you never really know what somebody else is feeling. How could you? You can only have a sense of what they might be feeling, and you have a sense of what you’re feeling.

But let’s be honest, as one of our prior guests on the Huberman Lab podcast, Dr. Karl Deisseroth, so aptly noted, rarely do we ever understand how anyone else truly feels, because indeed, rarely do we ever understand how we ourselves truly feel. And certainly with language, it’s very hard to explain our feelings with words in a way that can convey the way that we feel, with the kind of nuance that represents our own reality. Even in a state of extreme happiness or extreme sadness, words fall short of explaining how we feel inside. And yet, as I mentioned earlier, music not only can describe emotions, it can evoke emotions within us, and in doing so, it can evoke emotions that give us a sense of empathy for the person playing the music or simply for others in the world. And music can do that so powerfully, because not only does music come in through our ears, and we’ll talk about the process of how sound is converted into what we perceive as music in a little bit, because indeed, it comes in through our ears and we can hear that music, of course. But the nerve cells, the neurons in your brain, as well as the nerve cells in your body, can become activated by music in a way that the firing of those neurons, literally the frequency of those neural impulses, comes to match the frequency of the sounds that you’re hearing in your outside environment.

In other words, when you listen to music, not only is that music coming into your body through your sense organs, your hearing, but your body itself is an instrument playing that music from within. So, for instance, if you listen to a piece of music that has a lightness to it, that evokes a sense in you of the turning of the seasons from winter to spring, something that’s common in certain classical music, but other forms of music as well, when you hear that music, indeed it’s coming in through your ears, but also the firing of the neurons in your brain and body responding to those particular frequencies of sound, is such that your body itself is an instrument playing that sense of the turning of the seasons from winter to spring within you. Which is why your body starts to feel lifted in some cases, or it starts to feel a lightness in some cases, and an entire set of emotions starts to be recruited that, at least for you, resemble the turning of the seasons from winter to spring.

Now, that may sound rather complex, but we’re going to break that process down into its component parts. What I essentially just said is that when you listen to music, not only are you hearing that music, but your body, that is, your neurons and indeed your hormones as well, things like oxytocin and some other hormones in your brain and body that we’ll discuss, are contributing to a symphony of emotion from within your body and brain.

Okay, so while music can’t explain objects, it can’t describe them, it can explain in very nuanced ways, emotions, and it can evoke emotions within us. Now, if that’s not amazing enough, music can not only describe and evoke emotions, it can also imply intent. Think, for instance, about drumming that you would hear off in the distance. And we’re not talking about rat-a-tat-tat, we’re talking drumming of this sort, doom… doom… doom. And perhaps the cadence of that drumming changes such that as it’s approaching, it gets more and more frequent. Doom-doom-doom. What is the intent being implied?

Well, we know from numerous studies and, you know, from numerous movies that you’ve seen and heard, that that sort of low frequency drumming of increasing cadence as it approaches is implying the intent of aggression or war, or at least is implying that something serious is going to happen. Now, contrast that with a different frequency of sound played at a higher cadence, ta-da-dun-tun, ta-da-dun-tun. Now, the second set of tones are far less clear in terms of what they mean, what their intent is. But if we contrast them with, let’s just call them what they’re typically called, the war drums, or the drums that convey a sense of aggressive intent, doom… doom… doom, what we create then is a juxtaposition of two different emotional states in you, perhaps, or maybe you don’t respond to those with any robust emotional shift, but we are conveying two separate or distinct sets of intent.

Now, of course, spoken language can convey intent. I could say, for instance, I’m going to help you. How can I help you today? Or I could say, I’m going to hurt you, right? Of course, with spoken language, you could do that, and you could change the intonation of that language. You could change the frequency. So if I were to say, I’m going to hurt you [solemnly], it’s very different than if I say, I’m going to hurt you [lightly], or if I put it as a question, I’m going to hurt you?

Okay, so with language, of course, there’s also the opportunity for a lot of nuance, depending on where the inflections, where the accents are, on a particular phrase, even a particular word. But with music, as you recall, when we convey a sense of intent, we are also conveying that sense of intent through the body of the listener, not just bringing it in through their ears. And so when we do that, what we do is we start to recruit a huge number of neural circuits that are involved not just in understanding or a sense of empathy for an emotion, but rather that can recruit movement, or what we call premotor circuits in the body. Premotor circuits are the neurons that start to fire before a particular pattern of action is generated. And so when we hear music that conveys emotion, that evokes emotion, and especially when we hear music that conveys a sense of intent from the outside, we too start to feel as if we need to move or respond to that music in a particular way.

Now, what I just described to you is not something that’s learned. In fact, it is innate. How do we know that? Well, there are some beautiful studies that have explored how babies respond to music, indeed, how babies respond to specific types of music, specific frequencies of sound spacing between particular notes, and on and on. It’s been demonstrated, for instance, that babies as young as three months old respond to music very differently than they respond to just other forms of sound scrambled in time. Now, of course, babies that are three months old aren’t speaking, so you could ask them, does that sound like music? How does it make you feel?, etc. They’re not going to answer, at least not with any coherence, because they don’t have spoken language yet. But despite their absence of language, we know that babies as young as three months old respond to music because they do so with rhythmic movements of their bodily limbs and actually their torso as well.

Now, a little bit later, we will touch on this issue of what types of music evoke movement of the torso versus movement of the limbs, versus movement of the torso and limbs. No, I’m not going to dance for you during this podcast. However, there’s a really interesting story there that relates to how primitive or evolved the motor neurons, the neurons that actually move the musculature are, and how primitive or evolved the music that one listens to is. But just to give you a sense of where that’s headed, in this study where they examined the responses of very young babies to music, what they found is that certain frequencies of sound evoked movements in those babies that were rhythmic, where it was mostly their torso moving back and forth and maybe their head a little bit. Whereas other patterns of sound, different frequencies in different arrangements, evoked movement of their limbs more than their torso. And still other patterns of sounds evoked movement of their torso, limbs and head. In other words, babies dancing. And if you’ve ever been to a wedding or a party or been out dancing, you will see people who include more torso versus limb versus limb and torso movement when they dance. And yes, of course, some of this relates to proficiency in dancing, comfort on the dance floor, etc. But there are some universal rules out there about how certain frequencies and patterns of sound, aka music, evokes different types of bodily movements.

So, starting from a very young age, prior to any instruction in terms of how to dance or what music is, babies are dancing to music. And that highlights an important point that we will return to again and again throughout today’s episode, which is that the systems of the brain that respond specifically to movement, not just sound, but specifically to musical sounds, are intimately tied to the neural circuits of the body that generate movement, and this is especially important to understand when we get into our discussion about music and our sense of motivation.

Okay, so the list of incredible things that music can evoke within us by way of how it activates our nervous system and body is starting to grow. We’ve talked about how music can convey emotion, how music can evoke emotion, and how music can convey a sense of intent as well, now, as how music can generate action within us. This is a pretty spectacular list if you think about it. In addition, music causes changes within our bodily physiology that extends beyond the nervous system. Although it has a relationship to the nervous system in particular, there have been a lot of studies that have explored how music changes things, like our blood pressure, or how fast our heart is beating, our so-called resting heart rate. And here we’ve made some important discoveries in recent years. And when I say we, I don’t mean my laboratory, I mean laboratories that focus on the relationship between music and our bodily physiology, because we’ve long known that music can change various health metrics.

There are some really nice studies, and I’ll link to one or two of the metaanalyses of these studies in the show note captions that have showed that if people listen to anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes of music per day, and by the way, the selection of music in these studies ranged everything from rock and roll to classical music to country music. Typically, these studies would ask subjects what their favorite music is, and then they would have them listen to that particular genre of music for anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes per day.  And if you look at the metaanalyses of those studies, what you find is that almost all of them see some sort of significant effect, that is, some statistically significant shift in the bodily physiology of people that deliberately listen to music for 10 to 30 minutes per day, not while doing anything else, but just listening to that music. They find, for instance, that their resting heart rate is reduced, if not during the period in which they’re listening to the music, then after the time in which they’re listening to the music, they find that their so-called heart rate variability tends to increase. For those of you that aren’t familiar with heart rate variability, having increased heart rate variability is a good thing. And that’s because heart rate variability reflects the sort of push and pull, or the balance, rather, of the activation of the so-called sympathetic nervous system, which is the one sometimes called the fight or flight system, although I don’t really like that nomenclature.

The sympathetic nervous system, by the way, is not about emotional sympathy. It’s what drives your heart rate higher. It tends to put us into activated states where we favor movement and motion and makes us alert. Whereas the parasympathetic aspect of our nervous system is the portion of our autonomic nervous system, sometimes called the rest and digest system, the parasympathetic nervous system drives states of deeper relaxation, of calm. In any event, heart rate variability reflects a periodic breaking, a slowing down of heart rate and breathing, and other aspects of our neural system function that works alongside with sympathetic activation. Think of sympathetic activation as an accelerator, parasympathetic activation as a break. And when heart rate variability is higher, it reflects the fact that our parasympathetic nervous system is periodically engaging. It’s getting activated and slowing our heart rate, slowing our breathing down.

Music seems to have the effect of activating that parasympathetic aspect of our nervous system. And so we are pumping the brake every once in a while, slowing down our heart rate, slowing down our breathing. In other words, when people listen to music for a dedicated period of time, each day of about 10 to 30 minutes, some studies looked at as much as 60 minutes, but typically 10 to 30 minutes. What one finds is that heart rate variability increases not just during the period when they’re listening to the music. This is very important. But also heart rate variability is increased around the clock in those subjects, even during sleep, making listening to 10 to 30 minutes of your favorite music each day, not just what I would think to be an enjoyable protocol, if you could even call it a protocol. It’s so enjoyable to listen to your favorite music that it feels almost inappropriate to call it a protocol, because protocol sounds kind of rigid, like you’re imposing that on yourself. But if you need an excuse to listen to your favorite music for 10 to 30, maybe 60 minutes per day, and just attending to that music, not while doing anything else, which is what these studies had subjects do. Well, indeed, that’s been shown to increase heart rate variability around the clock, which we know is beneficial for your mental and physical health more generally. Okay, so there are dozens, if not hundreds, of studies that have explored how music impacts our physiology. And as I just mentioned, it seems that if we listen to music that we like for 10 to 30, maybe 60 minutes a day, our physiology, certain health metrics, heart rate variability in particular, improve.

Now, in light of the positive effects of listening to music on one’s health, there’s a recent metaanalysis that I found particularly interesting. The title of this metaanalysis is Effects of Music on the Cardiovascular System, and it was published in Trends in Cardiovascular Medicine. Now, from the title of this paper, Effects of Music on the Cardiovascular System, you might think that it’s just yet another metaanalysis exploring how music impacts heart rate variability and things of that sort. But what’s interesting about this study is that it identifies that the way in which listening to one’s favorite music positively impacts the cardiovascular system and other aspects of our physiology is very likely not through direct changes on our heart rate, simply by listening to music, but rather through changes in our breathing, and this is true even if people were not singing along with the music, by the way.

Now, the relationship between breathing and heart rate is something that I’ve touched on before. But if you haven’t heard me discuss this, I’m just going to briefly tell you the relationship in two or three sentences, and then I’ll explain the mechanism also in about two to three sentences. So if you have a background in biology, or even if you don’t, this will all be very simple and very clear. When you deliberately inhale with a lot of vigor, or you deliberately make your inhale longer than you naturally would. So, for instance, if I breathe in very vigorously through my nose, something very specific happens to your heart rate, it increases. Whereas when you deliberately exhale, meaning when you exhale and deliberately make that exhale longer, or you deliberately add vigor to that exhale, or even a shorter, deliberate, more vigorous exhale, you slow down your heart rate.

And that’s because of a phenomenon called respiratory sinus arrhythmia, which, because it includes the word arrhythmia, sounds like a bad thing, but it’s actually a wonderful thing. It has to do with the relationship between a particular muscle in your body called the diaphragm, which, when you inhale, our lungs fill with air, our diaphragm moves down, and our heart, therefore, has a little bit more space. It actually gets bigger, temporarily bigger, but bigger. And when it does that, whatever volume of blood is in the heart is now moving through a larger space. So it’s the same amount of blood moving through a larger space. And the nervous system registers that as the blood moving more slowly through that temporarily enlarged heart. And as a consequence, there’s a signal sent through various stations of the nervous system to the heart to speed the heart up. In other words, just as I said before, when we inhale, our heart rate speeds up. Conversely, when we exhale, our lungs empty out some air, our diaphragm moves up, and as a consequence of that, there’s less space for the heart, and so our heart temporarily becomes smaller. And when that happens, the volume of blood within that smaller heart moves more quickly, and that’s detected by the nervous system, which then triggers a neural signal from the parasympathetic arm of the autonomic nervous system, which is just fancy nerd speak for a neural signal is sent to your heart every time you exhale to slow your heart down.

So the well established effects of listening to your favorite music, increasing your heart rate variability is not a direct interaction between the sounds coming in through your ears and changes in your heart rate while you’re listening to the music. That’s actually what I would have thought happened. But this more recent metaanalysis pulls apart the variables in these different studies. It really illustrates that when we are listening to music, we are subconsciously, most of the time, subconsciously, changing our patterns of breathing. We are inhaling in anticipation of certain things happening in the music we’re exhaling. When we feel a relief of tension, we get excited, we may get sad, we may get happy. We may even just be listening to music that we don’t think is impacting our physiology at such a core level, but indeed it is. Music is able to route into our nervous system at levels below our conscious awareness and literally turn the various knobs, if you will, of our cardiovascular system, of our breathing apparatus, the diaphragm, the lungs. It can evoke respiratory sinus arrhythmia, which, again, sounds like a terrible thing, but is actually the reflection of a healthy nervous system and heart. And in doing so, yes, it increases heart rate variability, something that is beneficial to all of us, but it’s doing so by changing our patterns of breathing.

So if you’ve ever wondered why music can change how you feel so robustly, well, it’s doing that at a deep, foundational level of your nervous system, indeed, at the levels of your nervous system that typically are not in your conscious awareness, because I have to imagine that most of you are probably not listening to music and thinking, oh, here comes that one chorus, or here comes that one melody. And this is where I always exhale, or this is where I always hold my breath, this sort of thing. No, most people are just listening to music. It’s coming in through their ears. They’re experiencing some bodily sensations. Maybe they’re moving their torso, arms, maybe arms and torso. Maybe you’re not moving at all. No dancing, maybe just listening within your head. Or maybe it’s just dropped into the background below your conscious awareness at all. And yet that music is communicating emotion, it’s evoking emotion, it’s communicating intent, it’s activating those premotor circuits that would have you move if it could, and we’ll talk about dance a little bit later. But even if you’re not dancing, even if you’re not swaying the tiniest bit, your patterns of breathing are changing. And through respiratory sinus arrhythmia, your heart rate is changing. And through changes in your heart rate, your heart rate variability is increasing. So if ever you wanted a tool or protocol that was easy to use, but could positively impact your mental and physical health, well, listening to your favorite music for 10 to 30, maybe 60 minutes, maybe more per day, is that protocol.

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So hopefully it’s becoming clear just how absolutely powerful music is at evoking different physiological responses within you, that is, within your brain and body. But there’s an additional one that I find particularly interesting because it addresses and indeed answers one of the most common questions that I receive all the time, which is how can I get more motivated? Not how I, Andrew, can get more motivated, although of course I ask myself that question from time to time, although admittedly most of the time I’m wondering how I’m just going to get everything that I need to get done, done. But I often get the question: how can I feel more motivated? Or what can I do to sustain my motivation over time? And we hear a lot of different strategies about how to do that. We hear about the “just do it” strategy. The incredible slogan that Nike created and that persists to this day has become commonplace in culture. And indeed, the “just do it” form of advice can be a good one. But for a lot of people, just hearing “just do it” or telling themselves “just do it” is not something that can evoke action in them. Other people will listen to motivational speeches. They’ll look at motivational videos. They’ll read motivational books. They may even hire coaches.

In other words, people invest a ton of time, energy and money into trying to be more motivated. And indeed, a number of episodes of the Huberman Lab podcast have focused on the relationship between, say, motivation drive and the neuromodulator dopamine. We have several episodes about that, as well as a toolkit, all of which are available, zero cost at You can access those easily by putting motivation into the search function at All of that will come up timestamped, etc. But perhaps surprisingly, today’s conversation about music offers us a particularly potent tool to increase motivation. And that’s because one of the fundamental properties of listening to music is that it evokes activation of these premotor and motor circuits within our brain and body, that is, the neural circuits whose specific job is to mobilize our body from its current position and state to a new position and state.

So for those of you that listen to music while you work out or prior to when you work out, you are definitely on to something. For those of you that don’t, that’s fine, too. What I’m going to describe now are the specific sets of neural circuits that listening to music activates. As I mentioned earlier, listening to music activates so many circuits throughout the brain and body that really, one can take a step back from the scientific literature on this and say, anytime someone has done a study where human beings listen to music and people record from articulate brain area, believe it or not, even from the olfactory system, from the system in the brain responsible for smell, there seems to be some significant shift in terms of the neural firing there or the release of neural chemicals, which, on the one hand, might lead you to conclude that listening to music is just sort of a nonspecific, generalized activator of nervous system function. It’s just kind of like turning all the lights on. But that’s not the case. Music, in fact, is activating different neural circuits differently in time and space to evoke a whole set of specific reactions in your brain and body, but not the least of which is the propensity for you to move. And this is something that you can leverage. And indeed, I’ll describe a protocol by which you can leverage music in order to greatly increase your state of motivation.

Okay, so this is the portion of today’s episode where we’re going to discuss some specific neural circuits. But I want to assure you that if you’re a neurobiologist, you can understand this. If you are not a neurobiologist, in fact, if you took no biology ever in your life, I’m going to make it clear and easy for you to understand. As I mentioned before, when we hear music, it activates many, many circuits throughout the brain and body. When I say circuits, I mean neurons, nerve cells that communicate with one another in sort of chains of reactions. When I say respond to one another, what I mean is, when neurons are “activated” they release chemicals. Those chemicals are called neurotransmitters, things like glutamate, GABA. They’re also called neuromodulators, things like dopamine, serotonin. The names don’t really matter, for sake of today’s discussion, but what those things do is they influence the likelihood that the next neuron will be active or less active. Okay, so neurons speak the language, if you will, of electricity, because that’s how they evoke release of these chemicals and chemistry. They vomit out these chemicals. Those chemicals then bind to little parking spots on the next neuron called receptors. And then the next neuron gets activated electrically, and then to the next neuron and next neuron and so on. It’s a chain of electrochemical reactions.

Okay, so there’s your Neuroscience 101 lesson for today. When people listen to music, there is heightened activation of the so-called frontal cortex, the area of your brain, which is on the surface below your skull but just behind your forehead, more or less. And that area of your brain is involved in a lot of different things. It’s involved in understanding context, what sorts of behaviors and thoughts and actions are appropriate for a given environment. By the way, if any of you have ever been in an environment where everyone was really quiet and you thought, oh, my gosh, what’s keeping me from just blurting out my name right now or saying something totally inappropriate? Your frontal cortex is the one providing the so-called top down inhibition on that impulse to blurt something inappropriate out. And by the way, your thoughts about that impulse are perfectly normal. They actually reflect a heightened sense of normalcy, because it means that your brain is thinking about how it’s not going to do that, and so therefore, you’re not going to do that.

Likewise, if you are ever at the edge of a high bridge, please stay on the safe side of the railing, but if you think, oh, my goodness, what’s keeping me from just jumping off the bridge right now? What’s keeping you from doing that is your frontal cortex. It’s suppressing certain actions in a context dependent way, in particular, actions that are dangerous to you socially, physically, dangerous to others socially, physically, etc. Now, the frontal cortex, in order to do that, also has an incredible ability to make predictions. So this is the function of the frontal cortex that I want to focus on for the moment. Your frontal cortex is great at doing the. If this, then that type of analysis. If I say this, everyone will be offended, or if I say this, maybe they’ll laugh, or if I don’t say this, I’ll be safe. If I do say that, I won’t be safe, this kind of thing.

The frontal cortex is activated when we listen to music, because within music, there are some regularities. Sometimes these are described as motifs or melodies or choruses. Again, this is an entire landscape of discussion that we could have, and we will have with an expert guest about how the mathematics of music impacts the electrochemical signaling within the brain and the coding that is the mathematics of brain function, which leads us to predict that certain things, because they just happened, are likely to happen again or not happen again. But let’s set all that aside for the moment and just state the simple fact, which is that when you listen to music, your frontal cortex increases in activation because it is predicting what you’re going to hear next based on what you’re currently hearing and what you heard before.

Now, I am from the generation that, we didn’t have iPods when I was a kid. We did have CDs. We did have tapes, but you had to fast forward or rewind a cassette tape, or you had to skip on the CD in order to move about the album in time. Nowadays, you can queue up different songs in different order really easily. But if you are somebody who listens to albums start to finish, or if you’re like me and you grew up listening to albums start to finish, maybe occasionally skipping a song, but you will be very familiar with this phenomenon, which is that right, as a given song ends. If you’re familiar with that album, you already anticipate the start of the next song in your head, and that just speaks to the predictive function that the frontal cortex plays.

So if you have a mixtape with a bunch of different songs, sure, you don’t expect one song of a given artist to lead into the next. But if you’re somebody who’s listened to that mixtape a lot so you’re familiar with what song comes next. Or if you’re listening to a given album start to finish, and you’re very familiar with it, well, then you’ll immediately resonate with what I’m saying here, which is that your frontal cortex is always anticipating what sound is likely to come next. And this is very important because one of the key things about music is its ability to evoke our sense of surprise or delight through the release of a neuromodulator called dopamine. We’ll get to this a bit more later, is because that prediction machinery is thinking, oh, I heard that set of chords a moment ago. I’m going to hear it again. And then when it changes up, your brain goes, oh, whoa, hold on. That wasn’t what I expected. And it sometimes does that with a sense of delight, like, oh, yes. And sometimes it hears that and goes, oh, wait, what’s this? I don’t really like this that much. I like the opener of that song, but I don’t really like the rest. I think of that as there are certain pastries, muffins in particular, where I really like the top. It’s got the little crumbs, it’s got the berries and stuff. And then you get down past the top, and then you get to the middle of the thing, you’re like, oh, this thing’s not that good.

Okay. There are certain songs like that for me, so I always thought of those as muffin songs because the top of the muffin is always the best, whereas a doughnut is great the whole way through. And now I’m going on a tangent because I’m thinking about muffins and donuts. So I’m going to take us back to music. But the point is relevant nonetheless, which is that your frontal cortex is making predictions. And when those predictions are broken, that’s a sense of novelty. And when that novelty is something that you like, okay, so it evokes a sense of, yes, I like that. Well, then dopamine is deployed. And when that novelty is something you don’t like, typically there’s a reduction in the amount of dopamine released in a separate set of brain circuits below whatever level of dopamine happened to be there prior, your so-called baseline level of dopamine.

Okay, so when you listen to music, there’s a strong activation of the prediction machinery in your brain. There’s also activation of the circuits in your brain that register novelty. What are those circuits? These are things like the ventral tegmental area and the nucleus accumbens. I’ve talked about these before on the podcast. Again, you don’t need to know those names. Those are the names given to certain brain areas that control the release of dopamine in time, according to whatever you happen to be experiencing in that moment. Okay, so the mesolimbic reward pathway could perhaps better be called the mesolimbic reinforcement pathway. So, for those of you out there shouting, wait, the mesolimbic pathway does a bunch of other things, it’s not just dopamine, I agree. It’s also serotonin, it’s a bunch of other things. But for today’s discussion, we’re thinking about the mesolimbic pathway as deploying dopamine, which it does when we hear something novel, meaning not what we predicted and we like what we hear.

And then there are a bunch of other brain centers and circuits that listening to music activates. I’ll just list off a few. Again, this isn’t intended to confuse anybody or add a lot of useless nomenclature, but since I am a neuroscientist and this is a science and science-informed tools podcast, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that we get strong activation of a brain structure, you actually have two of them, one on each side of the brain called the amygdala. This is a brain area that’s part of a larger set of circuits that’s associated with arousal, meaning becoming more alert, becoming more aware of our surroundings and the particular sensory stimuli that are coming in at the particular time, such as the notes of the music or a particular set of lyrics.

And music also activates areas of the brain, such as the parahippocampal formation, the cortex, and the hippocampus itself, brain areas that encode and store memories. And this is something that I think everyone will be familiar with. When you hear certain songs, or even songs that sound like certain songs, or even songs that you swear you’ve never heard before, it can evoke a sense of nostalgia, of longing for something, of missing somebody, of sadness, or of delight and happiness and positive memories of somebody or something. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that hearing particular pieces of music, particular songs, more than any other experience, can activate a whole library of memory and emotions within us. And that’s because of its ability to activate the parahippocampal regions of the brain, the cortex, and the hippocampus itself. Again, several different brain areas, all which communicate with one another and other areas of the brain in order to encode our memories, our sense of self, our sense of others, our sense of history with those people, and on and on.

Now, rather than just make this a catalog of different brain areas that music evokes, what I’m trying to do is spell out how music activating these different brain areas is creating different components of what we are familiar with as our experience of music. So, frontal cortex prediction, mesolimbic reward pathway, novelty, amygdala, a sense of emotion and arousal. Parahippocampal cortex and cortex and hippocampus, our memories, in particular our emotional memories and our location memories associated with a particular piece of music. Haven’t you ever heard a song from, let’s say, a summer camp that you went to when you were a kid? All of a sudden you’re remembering the smell of the grasses at that summer camp. You’re remembering how some of the kids were really great and how some of the kids were really obnoxious. You’re remembering some things that you did. You’re remembering your counselors. I mean, there’s just a whole landscape of neural information there, life information stored in your head that hearing a particular song that was sung when you were, what, eight years old, ten years old at camp, just flips the lid on and it comes geysering out. Remarkable.

Now, there are two other sets of brain circuits that are activated by music that deserve specific attention and deserve that specific attention. Now, in the context of discussing motivation and music’s ability to motivate us in particular ways. And those brain circuits are the basal ganglia, so this is a set of circuits within the brain, they’re associated with action initiation, so-called go circuits, and withholding action, so-called no-go circuits, but basically, the basal ganglia are involved in regulating movement, and the cerebellum.

The cerebellum is sometimes referred to as the mini brain. It looks like a little mini brain in the bottom back of the human brain. In some species, the cerebellum is much larger relative to the rest of the brain. But in humans, it’s like this little piece in the back that looks like a little mini brain, like you’re carrying a second brain back there. That’s why I call it mini brain, cerebellum. It’s involved in a lot of things, but one of its primary functions is to encode rhythmic timing and processing, and along with its outputs to some deeper brain stem areas, things like the vestibular and cochlear nuclei. We’ll talk about this. The parabrachial nucleus, again, you don’t need to know these names. It, meaning the cerebellum, along with the basal ganglia, creates patterns of activity in our brain that cascade down to particular circuits in our body. So these are so-called premotor circuits and motor circuits that generate the sense that we not only can move, but that we want to move and that we want to move in particular ways.

So if you internalize nothing from the last five minutes or so in which I’ve been describing how music impacts different neural circuits in the brain, please do take away this important point, which is that when we listen to music, we think of that as an auditory experience. But now you know that it’s also an emotional experience, and this is very important. And when we listen to music, it is programming a specific set of motor actions that are more likely to occur. Put differently, when we listen to music, we are more likely to move our body and not just dance, not just move our torso, our limbs, or our limbs and torso together in concert with the music, but rather move our body from its current position to another position.

And this is one of the most important things to understand about music. Music, despite being an auditory stimulus coming in through our ears, evokes the activation of neural circuits in our brain that creates a sort of inertia. It creates a propensity for action across our entire body. So, now that you understand that listening to music activates lots of different brain circuits, of course, the circuits that respond to auditory stimuli, so-called primary auditory cortex, is powerfully activated by listening to music, but also circuits associated with novelty, anticipation. We talked about circuits in the brain associated with memory, but also circuits in the brain that are associated with generating movement. And not just movement that is in sync with or corresponds to the music that we’re listening to, but all forms of movement. But when we listen to music that has a relatively fast cadence, and we can actually define what that cadence needs to be, and we’ll do that in a moment. When we do that so-called premotor circuitry, the circuitry that’s going to initiate that kind of inertia or that pressure for movement within the neural circuits that actually evoke movement are all activated.

So, for those of you that like to listen to music while you exercise, you’re familiar with the fact that listening to great songs with a great beat, with particular lyrics, or that associate you with a particular time or place in your life can be very motivating. But there are data showing that when people listen to music that’s faster than about 140 to 150 beats per minute, that it creates a heightened state of motivation in the body to move. And the way that it does that is by way of shifting the balance between those go circuits and no-go circuits of the basal ganglia. There are some other ways that it does it as well. For instance, music can evoke the release of certain neurochemicals called the catecholamines. These include dopamine, but also norepinephrine and epinephrine, from centers in the brain and body, glands in the body, like the adrenal gland, that shift the body toward a predisposition of being more likely to move.

So if we want to distill all this out to a simple, actionable takeaway, simply know this. Listening to music, relatively faster music, predisposes you to be more motivated to move, and that is independent. This is what I find so cool. It’s independent of whether or not you’re familiar with the song, independent of whether or not the lyrics of the song are motivating lyrics. If they are, that’s just going to layer on top of the faster cadence, which is going to predispose you to move. But what’s remarkable is that just listening to that faster cadence music is creating a neuronal resonance, if you will, a pattern of neuronal firing within you that is going to essentially take your, and here I’m using metaphor, is going to put your state of motivation from either back on your heels to being flat-footed, or let’s say you’re mildly motivated. So I would call that flat-footed, as to being forward, center of mass. So for any of you that are suffering from lack of motivation, in particular to exercise, but believe it or not, also to do cognitive work where you’re going to be still and you’re going to sit down and you’re going to read or learn or practice something, listening to music for 10 to 15 minutes prior to doing that work, prior to doing that exercise, is one of the best ways to get motivated in order to engage in that work or engage in that exercise.

That’s been demonstrated in the data very conclusively, using a variety of different types of music. And again, there are multiple mechanisms that converge to create that heightened state of motivation. Some of those mechanisms are neurochemical, like the release of the so-called catecholamines, dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. Some of them are strictly neural circuit based. So activation of premotor circuitry, and those are going to combine with neural circuits that are going to narrow your field of vision. This is a good thing. Whenever you want to be motivated, they’re going to literally constrict your field of vision to more of a tunnel type of vision as opposed to more panoramic vision. And that I described it as placing you into a forward center of mass. I don’t necessarily mean literally a forward center of mass, unless perhaps you’re exercising, like running, leaning slightly forward. What I’m talking about is using music as a way to deliberately shift your state of mind and body from one that is amotivated, not motivated to more motivated. And it’s a very simple protocol extracted from the peer reviewed literature. You simply find some faster music, hopefully music that you like. It would be even better if it was music that had lyrics that you find motivating, and listening to that for 10 to 15 minutes prior to engaging in whatever that work may be, physical or cognitive.

On the topic of cognitive work, one of the most common questions I get is, what sorts of sounds or music should I listen to in order to increase my state of productivity, motivation, concentration, etc.? On previous podcasts related to focus and motivation, I touched on the use of so-called binaural beats, which are different frequencies of beats presented to one or the other ear. This is best accomplished with headphones, and there are a lot of different frequencies of binaural beats that you can get out there if you want to get detailed about this. Binaural beats also involve the differential between the frequency of beats between the two presented to the two ears, and then that difference then is heard by higher order processing centers in the brain. In any event, we don’t have to get too technical about it. We can simply say that yes, there are some decent peer reviewed studies demonstrating that when people listen to so-called 40 Hz, it’s a particular frequency of sound, 40 Hz binaural beats, that it can enhance concentration and focus. However, this is important. There are some recent studies that show that binaural beats sometimes can impede concentration and focus, and thereby can impede cognitive performance on various tasks. However, the studies that show that binaural beats can be detrimental to performance on various cognitive tasks did not use 40 Hz binaural beats specifically, so we are still awaiting more studies on binaural beats.

Meanwhile, I’ll just restate. What I said before is that there is some evidence that listening to 40 Hz binaural beats can enhance concentration and focus. There are also data showing that other frequencies of binaural beats might be detrimental to concentration and cognitive performance. And previously I’ve also discussed studies showing that, for instance, if people listen to white noise in the background, you could do this on your computer or speakers in the room, or headphones, or so-called brown noise, which is essentially like white noise. All frequencies of sound, or most frequencies of sound combined, but with particular frequencies of sounds that are accentuated and others are notched out as it’s called so-called brown noise.

Rather than understand all of this at a technical level because I’ve covered that before in previous podcasts. Suffice to say, if you go to YouTube and you just put in white noise background for cognitive focus, or brown noise background for cognitive focus, you can just try those if you like, during a session in which you’re trying to read or learn or do mathematics or music or any kind of cognitive work. If you don’t like them, if they don’t work for you, then there’s certainly no obligation to use them. Likewise with 40 Hz binaural beats, and for binaural beats, you can also find those as zero cost YouTube scripts. There are a number of zero cost apps that will allow you to listen to binaural beats. I’ve used the app Brainwave for some period of time now. To be honest, I’ve never done this strict control experiment on myself of listening to the 40 Hz binaural beats or not listening to 40 Hz binaural beats doing the equivalent types of tasks. I can be fairly regimented with my work and behavior, but I haven’t run a detailed controlled study on myself around this. Rather, if I want to heighten my level of focus or rule out distractions, what I will do is I will listen to either white noise or brown noise while I do work, or I will listen to 40 Hz binaural beats while I do certain types of work.

Or sometimes, frankly, I just work in silence. Other times I will listen to classical music in the background. I’m a big fan of listening to classical piano. I particularly like Glen Gould, the Bach variations, those are very pleasant to me. But, and this is really important in researching this episode about music in the brain. What I discovered was in the controlled studies that have been carried out as to whether or not people perform better on cognitive tasks that require a lot of focus, especially learning tasks that compared silence in the background to purely instrumental music in the background, to music with lyrics in the background to one’s favorite music with or without lyrics. The data are very clear. It’s very clear that most people, that means statistically, on average, people perform best on cognitive tasks or tasks that require a lot of focus to perform. Again, these are mental tasks, not physical tasks, when they are doing those tasks in complete silence.

So that was somewhat surprising to me. Second best conditions are to do those tasks in the presence of instrumental music only. And in that case there was a lot of variation as to whether or not people preferred faster cadence music. So 140 to 150 beats per minute or faster or slower music, 60 beats per minute or slower. I’ll get back to those specific numbers later, because they represent thresholds for inducing different types of emotional states, either happy or sad. But meanwhIle, it’s very clear when people work in silence they perform better than when they work with music instrumentals in the background, and they perform even less well when they listen to music with lyrics in the background. We’ll talk about why that is the case in a moment, and then people perform especially poorly relative to their performance in silence or any of the other conditions I mentioned when they listen to their favorite music while doing cognitive work.

And that to me was a bit surprising, especially since I spent a lot of my university years studying while listening to my favorite music in different forms. I’d listen to slower music, then faster music, and go back and forth and then sometimes turn it off altogether and work in silence. But the center of mass of the literature around this issue of whether or not to listen to music while one studies or tries to learn something. The data are pretty clear. The data show that it’s best to study and learn either in silence or with quiet instrumentals in the background. Now, I mentioned before that previous studies compared the effects of working in silence versus working with 40 Hz binaural beats or white noise or brown noise in the background. And in those studies, it was found that the white noise, brown noise and 40 Hz binaural beats background produced better levels of focus, I should say heightened levels of focus and cognitive performance and learning than working in silence. But I’ve not yet seen a study that compared 40 Hz binaural beats to brown noise to white noise to music directly. Perhaps there’s one out there. If there is, please send it to me. I’d be very curious to learn what the results of those are.

Now, that might seem like a lot of information, but the takeaways from it are very clear. And it’s always nice when things are clear, right? It’s clear that if we want to focus and learn that working in silence or with white noise or brown noise or 40 Hz binaural beats is going to be preferable to working while listening to music. But if you’re going to listen to music while you work, that is, do cognitive work, then you’re going to want to listen to music that is purely instrumental. And ideally, the music would be somewhat faster than 140 to 150 beats per minute. Now, I do not expect you to go and measure the frequency of beats per minute in the music that you listen to. And of course the beats per minute are going to change, right? That’s an average 140 to 150 beats per minute.

I don’t expect you to get super technical, break down the music that you’re listening to. That is not my goal, nor is that really what this podcast is about. I think occasionally people think that the goal of a science and science based protocols podcast is to optimize everything. In fact, I not such a fan of the word optimize because optimal really depends on the situation that you happen to be in. The point here is simply this, that many people out there, including myself, have been listening to some of our favorite music while working. But it’s very clear as to why that degrades cognitive performance. We know, for instance, that when we read, we are creating a semantic narrative in our own head. And when we listen to music with lyrics, especially music with lyrics, that we recognize the semantic content of the song. The lyrics compete with our comprehension of the narrative within our head from the material that we’re supposed to be learning.

So now it should be sort of obvious why listening to your favorite music that includes lyrics while trying to learn something else is going to impede learning. It’s because you’ve got multiple scripts, multiple dialogues happening in your head. And in fact, this is an opportunity for me to take a slight tangent, but a relevant one, which is to say, a lot of times people will ask me how I can retain a lot of information. I confess I never use a teleprompter for podcasting. I do have, usually, a short stack of notes, anywhere from one to six or seven pages of just bullet pointed notes that queue up things that I want to talk about and that I have researched in the literature. And then, of course, I’ll refer to papers from time to time. But one of the things that’s been very useful for me, which was taught to me, by the way, by a professor when I was in university, to read and retain information that I’ve read by memory, is that when I read, I’m trying to listen to the words being spoken in my head, typically in my own voice, although sometimes in someone else’s voice doesn’t really matter, I find. So when I’m reading, yes, it’s a process of visual scanning, but I’m also listening to the words within my head as if they’re being spoken.

Some of you may be familiar with this because you do it. Others of you perhaps might find this a bit more foreign. I’d be curious to know what your process of reading and retaining that information is, whether or not it includes an internal dialogue. But nonetheless, it should be very straightforward. Now to see why, if you’re listening to words that you’re reading on a page, maybe even mumbling, know a little bit, moving your lips a little bit while you read, which, by the way, if you heard our episode on language and auditory processing with Dr. Eddie Chang, who’s chair of neurosurgery at UCSF, he talked about the fact that when we read any material that the brain is generating premotor activity, you now know what premotor activity is. Premotor activity down to the muscles of the throat. The larynx and spharynx, which would speak those words, were those signals to get above a certain level, but that when we read, typically the signals that are getting sent through those premotor circuits are just below the threshold of what would have us actually speak those words. Put simply, when we read, we are just shy of saying what we are reading. And so when I say that when I read, I’m listening to the words in my head. That’s what I’m referring to.

So we’re starting to funnel in on some general principles of music and how it impacts the brain and how that can be leveraged toward better learning and better motivation, both in the context of physical and cognitive endeavors. Okay, so if you want to get motivated, listening to music prior to doing something that you’re trying to get motivated to do is a good idea. That’s what the data say. If you’re trying to learn something that’s cognitive, that requires reading, focus, and concentration, silence, 40 Hz Binaural beats, white noise or brown noise is probably best. And if you are going to listen to music, listening to music that includes instrumentals but not lyrics would be best. And listening to music that includes lyrics that you’re very familiar with would be the worst condition. Now, with that said, there are nice studies, and by the way, I’m going to link to a number of reviews and primary studies in the show note captions that refer back to this point I’m about to tell you, which is that listening to music while trying to do cognitive tasks can be detrimental toward learning that material.

Turns out that if you listen to music in the breaks between trying to learn certain material, you can actually heighten your level of cognition and focus and your ability to learn. So I find this particularly cool. It’s not that music is bad for focus and cognition and learning. It’s that listening to music, especially music that you’re familiar with, that includes lyrics at the same time as trying to learn something else, is not a good idea. But listening to music with lyrics, especially music with lyrics that you’re familiar with that you find particularly uplifting and motivating, is a cognitive and performance enhancer. When you go back to doing that work in silence, or perhaps while listening to white noise, brown noise, or 40 Hz binaural beats. So, like so many things, the answer is not black and white. It’s not that silence is better than music, or that music is bad for learning. It turns out that listening to music, even music with lyrics you’re very familiar with, can be highly beneficial for learning, but that you want to listen to that music in the breaks between these bouts of cognitive work.

Now, I’ve done previous podcasts that talk about how long a bout of cognitive work can or should be. Typically, 90 minutes is going to be the upper limit before you take a break. Some people can’t work for 90 minutes without a break. By the way, folks, when I say without a break, I don’t mean remaining in a deep trench of focus for 90 minutes. Nobody does that. Actually, I suppose there are a few folks that with neurochemical assistance or just by way of training, can get themselves into a deep, deep trench of focus for 90 minutes or more. But most people are going to focus on something and then have their attention flit out of focus, and then they’re going to have to draw their focus back to whatever it is they’re doing. That’s not just typical, that’s absolutely normal. And you shouldn’t be concerned at all if you try to focus for three minutes and find your attention jumping around two or three times during that attempt. But if you’re somebody who is going to do, say, a 90 minutes or even 60 minutes or even 30 minutes bout of work, and you are going to get up for a moment and use the restroom, or you’re going to take a break in between bouts of work. So maybe you work for 30 minutes, take ten minutes or five minutes off, or 90 minutes, take 30 minutes off. Listening to music in those breaks, it seems, can increase our ability to focus and to learn new material once we return to those bouts of cognitive focus.

Now, when it comes to physical exertion, cardiovascular exercise, resistance training of any kind, many people, including myself, like to listen to music while performing that physical exercise or that physical exertion. The data on whether or not music improves physical performance is a bit mixed. Certainly you can find studies that show that it improves physical output. Other studies will say that it doesn’t make a difference. Other studies will say that it reduces physical output. However, this is  very important, the type of physical exercise is not very well matched between those different studies. So this is something that I believe is going to be highly individual in accordance with the published data.

I mix it up. There are times when I will head out for a run or I will do a resistance training session and I will listen to music, usually an album all the way through, or a playlist all the way through. And that’s because I don’t want to be going onto my phone very often. In fact, these days I use an older, separate phone that doesn’t have any text messaging or communication to the outside world, but it has music loaded into it or onto it. That allows me to just listen to music so that I don’t run the risk of getting distracted texting and doing things like that. I just want to focus on my physical exercise. I should say that that phone also has audiobooks, podcasts, things that I’ve downloaded to it, so it’s a place where I can listen to things but not communicate with the outside world, at least while exercising. Some people do very well to listen to music, literally in between and during their sets of resistance training throughout their entire runs. It’s going to be individual. You have to figure out what’s best for you.

However, one of the most interesting things about the scientific literature on this shows that if people listen to music, in particular music that tends to be faster, more upbeat, typically it’s going to be, in these studies, rock and roll music as opposed to classical, although there are some studies that have explored classical and other forms of music as it relates to exercise, listening to that music in between bouts of exertion, so in the rest, between sets of resistance training or periodically during, say, a run or a bout of cycling, can indeed enhance performance in a way that, at least by my read of the data, exceeds that which is observed when people just listen to music throughout.

In other words, if you find it useful to listen to music before, during, and after your workouts, great, be my guest. However, what the data say is that switching up between silence and listening to music, and in this case, it would be listening to music that you’re very familiar with, and that can evoke a sense of motivation and desired action in you for whatever reason, the music, the beat, the memories that it draws you to, etc, well, then that’s going to be useful. So there really isn’t one protocol for how to get the most out of music for the sake of physical exertion. But if you’re interested in playing with some of these variables as they’ve been examined within the peer reviewed literature, I find it interesting. And indeed I found it useful to, for instance, do a workout where I only listen to music in between sets of resistance training, or to listen to music prior to going out for a run. And then oftentimes when I do that, the song or songs will be sort of on loop in my head. Although I confess that a lot of times nowadays I listen to podcasts while I run or while I hike. And when I’m in the gym and I’m doing resistance training, I like to listen to music as opposed to content that requires that I really focus very heavily on that content, such as a podcast, such as a book.

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Now I’d like to talk about the use of music to shift our mood and indeed to get us out of states of anxiety. This is a really interesting scientific literature with some very specific actionable takeaways that I think everyone will find beneficial. I certainly did. However, I want to point out that we don’t need a scientific study to illustrate for us the way that music can shift our mood. And you already know why it is that listening to a sad song can sometimes make us feel sad. Listening to happy music can make us feel happy. It’s because when we listen to music, there are some fundamental components of that music, literally the mathematical structure of that music, including the frequency of sounds, the cadence of those sounds, as well as the lyrics. But even in the absence of lyrics, that are activating brain circuits within us such that the frequencies of sound that we’re hearing are evoking firing of neurons in the brain of the same frequency.

In other words, your brain becomes a bit of a piano playing the same song that you’re hearing inside your head. Now, that’s sort of a duh, right? You hear music in your head, even if you’re listening to it from outside in the room. But when you understand that neurons speak the language of electrochemical communication, what we’re talking about here is particular music evoking the release of neurochemicals in your brain at a particular frequency. So just think about that for a second. We know that neurochemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, some of the so-called endogenous opioids, right? These aren’t opioids that people take. This isn’t related to the opioid crisis. We’re talking about endogenous opioids that are released in response to music, things like exercise, different types of social interactions. Those and other chemicals are released according to the firing of specific neurons. And we know that when you listen to music at particular frequencies, arranged in particular motifs, etc., that the neurons that release those neurochemicals are firing at those same frequencies. In other words, that the sound is causing a sound dependent pharmacologic concert within your brain. So that fact should make it incredibly clear as to why certain music, even in the absence of lyrics, can evoke certain emotional states.

Certain sound frequencies are transformed into the neural language within your brain that releases certain neurochemicals that create certain emotional states of brain and body. Just to drill in how incredible that really is a little bit further. If you see a beautiful painting or the picture or presence of somebody’s face in real life, that evokes a particularly strong positive or negative emotion, you can imagine that, of course, it creates the release of certain neurochemicals, or perhaps, in the case of a negative face, suppresses the release of certain neurochemicals. But we can’t say that a particular frequency of color, say reds against oranges, or the presence of a rainbow, evokes a sort of rainbow-like cascade of neurochemicals, whereas with sound, that’s exactly what’s happening. And this isn’t to diminish the value of vision in terms of its ability to evoke emotional states within us. After all, I’m foremost a neuroscientist. But under the umbrella of neuroscientists, I started off as, and I continue to be, a vision neuroscientist studying the visual system and its ability to evoke emotional states within us.

But I have to acknowledge that the auditory system, and in particular the circuits In the brain that respond to music, have a remarkably potent ability to evoke these emotional states. Which Is why, when surveys have been done asking people why they listen to music, the responses that have come back generally resemble the following statistics. Approximately 90% of people say they listen to music to relax. Approximately 82% of people self-report that they listen to music in order to make themselves happy. Approximately 46.5% of people say that they listen to music in order to process particular states of emotion. We’ll get back to what process means in a moment, but more often than not, when these studies have asked specific questions about what particular types of emotions people are listening to, in order to process their emotions better, it is the emotion of sadness. And 32.5% of people report that they listen to music in order to increase their sense of concentration. And we already talked about the role of music in concentration or its ability in some cases to inhibit concentration a few minutes ago.

Now, you might be asking yourself, how can 90% of people listen to music for one thing and 82% of people for another thing, and so on and so forth, we’re well over 100% of people. Well, in this survey and other surveys like it, people had the option to give multiple reasons for listening to music, because, of course, most people have multiple reasons for listening to music. Now, with that said, if we are to examine this one particular category, nearly half of people who report listening to music on a regular basis listen to music in order to process their emotions.

We can ask what does the scientific literature tell us about how certain types of music evoke certain types of emotions, or help us process certain emotions? Again, we’ll get back to what we mean by processes in a moment, but a number of studies have been done on this. There’s some metaanalyses that converge on some general themes. What I refer to as the center of mass of data. When there are a lot of studies in a given area, the outcomes of some of those studies conflict with one another. Generally, in a good metaanalysis, what happens is different studies are considered more powerful or less powerful than others, depending on how many subjects were involved, the different control conditions, or lack of control conditions, and so on and so forth. This is one of the great values of metaanalyses, is that they don’t treat all studies equally. They separate out studies based on their level of rigor and thoroughness.

Well, what we can say with confidence is that music that makes us “happy” or tends to shift people’s state from less happy to happier regardless of how they enter the experiment, tends to be faster music, meaning music that on average contains 140 to 150 beats per minute or faster. And there are some other features, to “happy” music, if you will, that it tends to be in a major key, that if there are lyrics to that music, that the lyrics tend to report things that are happy or, get this, total nonsense. In fact, when the type of lyrics in this “happy” music is, I guess, singing about great events in life and positive things, falling in love, being in love, positive memories, birth of children, connection to friends, great adventures, those lyrics, or I should say, that music containing those lyrics was no more effective in creating states of happiness than was music of equivalent cadence. So again, music that was 140 to 150 beats per minute or faster on average. Well, even if the lyrics were complete nonsense, even if the vocalizations weren’t actual words, it still evoked the same increase in the level of happiness in the subjects than when compared to the music containing coherent lyrics around happy events.

What this means is that the cadence of music is no doubt the critical variable when one is trying to shift one’s mood from a state of whatever could be depressed or sad to non-depressed, non-sad or neutral to positive, and so on and so forth. But what this also explains is one hit wonders. Rarely, if ever, by the way, are one hit wonders sad and depressing songs. Sometimes, almost always, these one hit wonders are songs that are very effective in shifting people’s mood from not so happy to happier. Or we could just say happier regardless of where they started out before listening to the song, they feel better while and after listening to the song. And indeed, more often than not, the lyrical content of those songs is not particularly meaningful. It’s not addressing a particularly meaningful state or issue. It’s just what some people call a party song, or it’s something that’s just uplifting, not just to them, but to many other people.

Which actually brings up an interesting and future looking point, which is that nowadays we are seeing the emergence of AI, artificial intelligence, being used to generate new songs. By capturing these well established rules, gleaned from neuroscience of how music impacts the brain, such that in the future, artificial intelligence is going to be generating hit songs for us, as opposed to having people generating hit songs. I know this evokes a state of concern and fear in many people. I think that this is fear that needs to be matched with, I don’t know, perhaps a cautious optimism. I mean, who knows? Maybe there are patterns of music, including lyrics, that human beings, in their current understanding of themselves and of music, have not yet been able to tap into. And who knows? Maybe AI will be generating the best music that we’ve ever heard. Or perhaps music that can shift our states from more depressed or sad to heightened levels of happiness in ways that humans have just not been able to accomplish. So I think it’s important to balance any pessimism about AI and its ability to generate music based on these rules of how music impacts the brain with an open mindedness. After all, neuroscience, neuroimaging, and neural recordings directly with electrodes in the brain while people are listening to music is teaching us how the brain responds to that music and is giving us information that indeed human beings, but also computers, can use in order to generate stimuli. Music that can shift our brain into more positive states. And if that’s the case, wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Another established feature of happy music is, get this, its ability to get people to relax the furrow of their brow, indeed to raise their eyebrows, and to be a bit wide eyed, and not just through autonomic arousal, but rather through activation of the muscles in the face. Conversely, we know that sad music, and here we can define sad music, this has actually been done in the literature. Sad music tends to be slower than average, slower than 60 beats per minute or so, again, on average, and this again is independent of the lyrics that might not even be present in the song. Sad music tends to activate the corrugator muscles of the forehead, which are the muscles that furrow the brow and that lead to a kind of serious look. It’s a folding in of the face, as opposed to a widening up of the eyes and a relaxation of the brow.

Now, given where we are in the course of this discussion, that shouldn’t be surprising. We already talked about how listening to particular sounds evokes the release of particular neurochemicals, but in a more direct fashion, listening to particular sounds activates certain premotor and motor circuits within the brain and body. Not just the desire to move one’s torso, limbs, or both, bob one’s head or move a head side to side, but also the microstructures of the face, which, because one of the main roles of the face is to communicate emotion, is going to cause either a relaxation of the brow and a lifting of the eyebrows, or a furrowing or activation of the corrugator muscles of the eyebrow.

And if that’s not obvious and yet interesting enough, well, get this, there seems to be a direct relationship. I’m chuckling because this still just blows my mind, because it’s a total, duh, obvious when you hear it, but it’s still just so cool that there’s a direct relationship of the frequency of the sound that you hear, either low pitched or high pitched, and the cadence of that sound. And here I realize I’m not using technical music theory language, but whether or not that particular tone is played over and over, close in time or more spaced out in time and facial expressions. And indeed, when we listen to bass tones, low frequency tones set apart from one another with some distance so that they’re not overlapping, we get the all too familiar base face. So what I’m referring to here is what neuroscientists would call a labeled line, literally a circuit of neurons that goes from the periphery, in this case, our ears, into our brain through several different stations, and then wicks out to impact all sorts of things within us, states of emotion, states of motivation, our propensity to move, but also a labeled line circuit coming from hearing low frequency sounds played spaced apart from one another that evokes a particular facial expression.

And again, this takes us back to the earlier statement that I made, which is not an original statement. Frankly, there are people within the field of auditory processing and understanding how the brain processes music. In fact, one of the world experts in this, Dr. Erich Jarvis at the Rockefeller University, was a guest on this podcast where we talked about the relationship between music movement and singing, and the fact that music movement, in particular dance and singing, likely preceded the evolution of modern spoken language. Well, Erich Jarvis and others have argued quite convincingly that these circuits that I’m calling labeled lines to particular facial expressions and states of emotion are the most fundamental components of communication and the ways that humans have communicated about their emotional state and literally induced that same emotional state in other members of our species, dating back tens of thousands, if not more years.

One of the fun things about researching this episode on music in the Brain is that there are a lot of quality studies exploring how music impacts the brain, neuroimaging neural recording data from excellent laboratories, as well as a lot of studies. In fact, a surprising number of studies explore how particular types of music impacts mood states. And fortunately, that allowed me to glean some very specific recommendations as to the minimum amounts of, say, happy music that you need to listen to in order to shift your mood into a happier state. And indeed, the numbers exist in the literature, and it has been shown that the threshold for significantly shifting one’s mood into a happier state by listening to the sorts of music we talked about before that faster cadence music, even with nonsense lyrics, although it could include other lyrics instead, is nine minutes. Not ten, not eight, but nine. And I’m sort of joking when I say not ten, not eight, but nine, because, of course, you could listen to music for ten minutes or 15 minutes or longer. In fact, earlier we talked about the benefits of doing that. But when one examines the various studies that looked at how long subjects need to listen to music in order to shift their mood into a happier state, the threshold seems to be nine minutes. So if you want to feel happier than you currently feel, it seems that listening to happy music for nine minutes or more is going to be the effective approach.

Okay, so nine minutes or more to shift one’s state to happier. What about to process somber or sad feelings? Feelings of loss? Well, this raises an even bigger question, and it’s a question that I also get very often, as you’re noticing, I get a lot of questions often. In any event, one of the common questions that I get is when we are feeling sad or experiencing a loss, grieving the loss of a relationship by death or decision, or by somebody moving away, or the loss of a pet, etc., is it better to go into that state? In other words, to “feel one’s feelings” or to counter those feelings? Now, historically, that’s been a very difficult question for me to answer, because who am I to say whether or not you should feel your feelings, or whether or not feeling those feelings will take you down a trench of feeling much worse or much better? In fact, there’s an emerging literature exactly about that issue. That is, whether or not the catharsis model is really best. Catharsis being the expression and feeling of one’s emotions as a way to extrude or get rid of those emotions, or whether or not that simply drives us further down the trench of those emotions.

That’s really something that we should address in a separate podcast episode, and I will have experts from the fields of psychiatry and psychology to help us address that question directly. But since we’re talking about music in the brain, and the fact that music has a tremendous capacity to evoke emotional states, including sad states, what has been shown in the peer reviewed literature is that when people who are feeling sad, for whatever reason, loss of relationship, death, who knows, doesn’t really matter why they’re feeling sad. After all, it’s that they’re feeling sad listening to 13 minutes or more of sad music. That music can contain lyrics they are familiar with, or no lyrics, regardless of whether or not it contains lyrics, it’s going to be, on average, 50 or 60 beats per minute or less. We established that already. Listening to that for 13 minutes or more has been shown to be effective in allowing people to “process” their somber feelings and to some extent, to move past their feelings of sadness. So those studies support the idea that when feeling sad, feeling one’s feelings, and perhaps even amplifying those feelings of sadness by listening to sad music for 13 minutes or more can help people process those sad feelings.

And while that point might seem overly reductionist, I actually think it’s of real value. I’m certainly familiar with feelings of loss, feelings of grief, and I’ve often struggled with this question of, gosh, do I try and just push it aside or do I deal with those feelings? Again, this is something that you really need to determine for yourself. But what these studies show pretty conclusively is that when we’re feeling sad, matching that sadness or amplifying that sadness by listening to sad music for 13 minutes or more can help us move through that state of sadness. And one could argue this is more or less the use of catharsis, of amplifying emotional expression or feeling in order to try and move that feeling out is a classic idea originating in Freudian psychology, but probably before then as well. But in any event, I think these data support the idea that even when feeling sad, perhaps especially when feeling sad, amplifying or matching those feelings through the use of sad music for 13 minutes or more. Again, you don’t need to set a timer for 13 minutes, but giving yourself a period of time to just listen to that music is one way that can help you move through that state of sadness and then be able to lean back into other areas of life.

So we’ve talked about the role of music in evoking or shifting states of happiness and sadness. There are also interesting data that support the use of music for shifting one out of a state of heightened anxiety. And I find this especially interesting because my laboratory for a long time has worked on behavioral interventions to reduce anxiety. Things like the physiological sigh, which if you’re not familiar with, you can put physiological sigh and my last name into YouTube, and there’s a demonstration of that. It’s a breathing technique of two inhales through the nose and a long exhale through the mouth to lungs empty, that at this point in time we understand to be the fastest and most effective way to reduce one’s levels of anxiety in real time. So it’s two inhales through the nose long to lungs empty, exhale through the mouth. That’s the physiological sigh. Earlier, we talked about the fact that one of the main ways in which listening to music shifts heart rate and increases heart rate variability, and thereby positively shifts a number of different health metrics, is through shifts in breathing. So I justify that brief vignette about the physiological sigh as within the general context of what we’re talking about today.

In any event, there are data that have explored whether or not specific musical stimuli can be used to significantly reduce anxiety. In particular, one published out of the University of Pennsylvania, and I will provide a link to this study in the show note captions which shows that people that listen to a particular song that I’ll describe in a moment experience up to 65% reductions in their anxiety. That’s a significant reduction in anxiety. And I should point out that 65% reduction in anxiety in this case was accomplished with just three minutes of listening to this one particular song. And get this, that particular song was as effective in reducing anxiety as one of the most commonly prescribed benzodiazepines. So what is this magical anxiety reducing song? The title of the song is Weightless by Marconi Union. I hadn’t heard of this song prior to researching this episode. I did indeed look up the song on YouTube and listen to the song. I will provide a link to the song in the show note captions. I confess that it is a very relaxing song. I also confess that I was not experiencing anxiety when I listened to the song, but it was successful in reducing my level of overall autonomic arousal. I found myself more relaxed, etc. Now, of course, what I’m describing in terms of my own experience is not a peer reviewed study. It’s what I would call anecdata, meaning I’m just describing my experience. But again, there are peer reviewed studies exploring how this particular song shifts one’s autonomic state. And I think this three minutes of listening to this one song should at least be tried by anyone that’s trying to reduce their anxiety. Because unless you’re listening to the song in some way that I’m not aware of, like excessively loud or something of that sort, I can’t imagine how listening to the song would be detrimental in any way.

And if you are anything like the subjects in the study that they explored, it could very well be beneficial and help you reduce your anxiety. It’s also something that you could keep queued up on your phone or on any device, such that if you think you may experience anxiety, you just put your headphones in and listen to it. You might be wondering whether or not Marconi Union’s Weightless is only three minutes long. Well, I don’t know the answer to that, because when you go on YouTube, what you’ll see is that clearly a number of people are benefiting from listening to the song to reduce their anxiety. Or at least that a number of people have listened to this song. Because if you put Marconi Union Weightless into the search function on YouTube, what you’ll quickly discover is that the top video has, get this, 47 million views and it’s 10 hours long.

Now, across today’s episode, it’s been in the back of my mind that some of you out there, perhaps are trained musicians that you grew up playing an instrument, perhaps sang in choir or at school. Perhaps you played multiple instruments. Perhaps you even know music theory. Whereas others, such as myself, were encouraged to play an instrument when we were younger, but then abandoned that instrument. In fact, I’ll just tell you a brief story. When I was a kid, every kid in school was required to pick an instrument. My parents, for whatever reason, clearly they didn’t ask me what I wanted to do, they asked me to play the violin in school. And I got the violin. I started playing the violin. I took the Suzuki method lessons. This is where you don’t learn to read music directly. There’s a number assignment to the different notes and that’s initially how you learn. I was also supposed to listen to the songs while I slept. This idea that some of the music and musical learning could be encoded during sleep, an interesting topic because there’s actually some emerging evidence for that now. But at the time, as far as I know, there were no peer reviewed studies.

But nonetheless it was thought that this works, and perhaps it does. Well, I can tell you one thing for sure, it did not work for me because I have one photo, and truly just one from a concert that I played. I must have been about eight or nine years old. And within this photo, what you’ll notice is there’s a gallery of children, all with violins, all of whom’s bows are up and my bow is down. That in addition to the fact that my fly was open in the picture and the fact that every time I played the violin, either by practice or with the teacher present. When we would go to these once a week sessions with an individual teacher, people would cringe. Animals would cringe. Literally, dogs would howl. Such that my parents did not encourage me to continue playing. In fact, they and many others encouraged me to quit playing. So I quit playing. I confess I don’t know how to play any instrument. I’ve attempted a few other instruments in my lifetime.

Yes, I believe in neuroplasticity. It is a hallmark feature of our brain. Our brain can learn things even as adults. But the point I’ve tried to make here is that I am not of the category of kids that played an instrument and understands music theory or how to read music. I simply don’t. And I realize that those of you that are listening to this or watching this out there are probably in a mixed category of proficiency, all the way down to what I would consider my own relationship to music, which is deficiency. Although I greatly enjoy listening to music and I do have a pretty good ability to memorize lyrics. In any event, the reason I raise this is that there are now dozens if not hundreds, of quality peer reviewed studies using a variety of technical approaches that show that when children, especially children younger than eight, learn to play an instrument, and even better, learn to play multiple instruments, regardless of whether or not they learn to read music, that it leads to greatly enhanced connectivity within their brain that persists into adulthood, and that it facilitates other forms of neuroplasticity and learning, which is basically to say that my brain very likely does not include these enhanced circuits.

Which circuits am I referring to? Well, there are a number of different circuits in the brain that have been shown to expand when children learn how to play an instrument as a child, eight or younger. And again, eight isn’t a strict cutoff, and I always have to highlight this. Forgive the tangent, but when we say eight or younger, I don’t want people with nine year old children or a 10 year old kid or even 16 year old kid listening, or even an adult listening to think, oh, the window is shut for me. Because when one designs a study, you have to have some thresholds of who you include and who you don’t include. And sometimes that leads to these kinds of artificial perceptions about where the cutoffs are. But in any event, it’s very clear that if you did learn an instrument when you were young, or ideally even multiple instruments, and even better would be to learn multiple instruments and how to sing along with instrumentals, especially in an improvised manner, well, your brain has expanded connectivity on average relative to children that did not have that experience.

Now, the good news is that learning how to play an instrument, or even, thankfully for me, listening to novel forms of music, music that you don’t typically listen to for 30 to 60 minutes per day, and it doesn’t have to be every day, in fact, it can even be just three days a week for 30 to 60 minutes, has been shown to expand brain connectivity in ways that, of course, lends itself to better musical comprehension and even performance. But learning how to play a musical instrument at any age, as well as singing, and singing especially with others in a group, has been shown to enhance learning and the acquisition of new skills separate from musical learning and singing. In other words, it seems that learning how to play an instrument and singing are a gateway to neuroplasticity. And this is again supported by neuroimaging data.

Some of the more striking of those data are that children that learned how to play one to three instruments when they were a kid, or that sang in a choir or a group or that were taught to sing solo, for that matter, show up to 30% greater connectivity within this particular brain network that links the two hemispheres of the brain. Now, as soon as I say two hemispheres of the brain, it starts drawing up a lot of ideas in people’s heads, mainly derived from pop psychology, that there are left-brained people and right-brained people. I’ve touched on this before, but I want to make this abundantly clear again. Now, most of what you’ve heard about so-called left-brained people or right-brained people is complete and total nonsense. It’s myth. There are some functions in the brain that are lateralized to the left or the right hemisphere, in particular, prosody, the sort of lilting and falling of speech, and in singing, is highly lateralized in the brain. Other aspects of language can be lateralized in the brain. But really, if you hear that certain people are more emotional or certain people are more logical based on right-brain, left-brain stuff, that stuff is completely false. It’s complete garbage. In fact, it’s not based on any real solid data.

So when I say that learning an instrument or learning how to sing young or even as an adult, is beneficial for increasing the connectivity between the two sides of the brain, what that increased connectivity between the two sides of the brain, which is, by the way, mediated through a structure called the corpus callosum, is not about enhancing one’s emotional capacity or logical capacity. It’s really about increasing the capacity of all brain circuits, or at least the brain circuits that are connected up directly with a corpus callosum, which includes many brain circuits for things like cognition, language, learning, speech, mathematics.

A lot of people don’t realize this, but a lot of musicians are also especially adept at mathematics. And for you musicians, you’re probably nodding, of course, right? Because music is grounded in theory that has basis in math and in physics, something that we will address in a future episode about harmonics, etc. When children or adults learn how to play a musical instrument, or several, or how to sing and play musical instruments, that increased connectivity in the corpus callosum is essentially providing multiple highways of options for learning all sorts of things. So it’s something that I highly encourage, so much so that I intend to finally learn how to play an instrument.

I’ve got a particular instrument in mind that I’ve wanted to learn how to play for a very long time. But based on my prior experience with trying to learn an instrument, and because I like to consider myself a considerate person. I intend to do this more or less in isolation from people and indeed from animals as well. And for those of you that don’t have the time or energy or desire to learn new forms of music, you’ll be perhaps delighted to know that just listening to novel forms of music, and in particular, when you listen to novel forms of music and you pay attention to that music, not just letting it play in the background, that, too, has been demonstrated to expand the brain’s capacity for neuroplasticity, its ability to modify itself and make it better at learning other sorts of things, both cognitive and physical.

So I highly encourage you to listen to the music you love. I certainly love to listen to the music that I delight in and have for so many years. But there’s also strong scientific support to encourage listening to new forms of music that hopefully you will like. But nonetheless, the mere foraging for and listening to novel forms of music itself seems to activate brain circuitry in a way that allows for better learning and comprehension of all sorts of things. So today we’ve been talking about music in the brain, and I confess this is an enormous topic, so much so that I had to discard entire sets of data and discussion around, for instance, the mathematical structure of music and how that relates to the mathematical structure of firing of neurons.

We touched on this a little bit, however, in the context of certain frequencies of sounds that we hear, creating certain frequencies of neuronal firing and activation in the brain. I mean, just think about that, how amazing that is! It’s literally like the brain playing your neurons like a piano. This is not what happens when you smell a particular odor or taste a particular taste or see a particular face or visual stimulus. Incredible things happen within those senses as well. But there is something oh so fundamental and incredible about music in its ability to tap into our neural circuitry and our neural chemistry in ways that shift our emotional states and our motivational states.

So we talked about ways that music can be leveraged to shift our emotional and motivational states. Again, not as a way to reduce music to its reductionist parts, but rather to help us gain understanding into how the brain responds to music and how we can leverage music of all kinds with and without lyrics, how we can balance the contrast between music and silence to increase motivation, and so on and so on. For those of you that are interested in the more formal structure of music and how it relates to brain function, and vice versa, as well as for those of you that are interested in singing and songwriting and more along the lines of lyrical content, and how singing in groups, and how improvisation of singing and musical playing can impact brain function and plasticity.

I promise you there’s going to be both an expert guest coming on the podcast to discuss that, as well as a solo episode on those topics. Again, the topic of music in the brain being far too vast to cover in just one conversation. With that said, I hope that today’s discussion allowed for you to think about music differently. Hopefully it will lead you to listen to music a bit differently, perhaps even leverage music for different purposes in your life, and above all, to think about music and to enjoy music, either listening to it or playing it, or both. Because as you now know, music isn’t just able to activate your brain, but rather your brain contains vast amounts of real estate that are literally there to listen to music.

If you’re learning from, and or enjoying this podcast, please subscribe to our YouTube channel. That’s a terrific, zero cost way to support us. In addition, please subscribe to the podcast on both Spotify and Apple. And on both Spotify and Apple. You can leave us up to a five star review. Please also check out the sponsors mentioned at the beginning and throughout today’s episode. That’s the best way to support this podcast. If you have questions for me or comments about the podcast or guests that you’d like me to consider hosting on the Huberman Lab podcast, please put those in the comments section on YouTube. I do read all the comments.

Not on today’s episode, but on many previous episodes of the Huberman Lab podcast, we’ve discussed supplements. While supplements aren’t necessary for everybody, many people derive tremendous benefit from them for things like improving sleep, for hormone support, and for focus. The Huberman Lab podcast is partnered with Momentous Supplements. Because Momentous Supplements are the very highest quality, they also ship internationally, and they tend to focus on single ingredient formulations, which makes it easy to develop the most biologically effective and cost effective supplement regimen for you. If you’d like to see the supplements discussed on the Huberman Lab podcast, you can go to livemomentous, spelled O-U-S, so it’s

If you’re not already following me on social media, please do so. I am Huberman Lab on all social media platforms. So that’s Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Threads, and Facebook. And on all those platforms I cover science and science-related tools, some of which overlaps with the content at the Huberman Lab podcast, but much of which is distinct from the content on the Huberman Lab podcast. So again, it’s Huberman Lab on all social media platforms. And if you haven’t already subscribed to our newsletter, we have a zero cost monthly newsletter. It’s called the Neural Network Newsletter that provides podcast summaries as well as toolkits such as a toolkit for sleep, toolkit for focus, toolkit for neuroplasticity, toolkit for fitness, deliberate cold exposure, heat exposure, and on and on again, all available, zero cost. You simply go to, go to the menu, scroll down to newsletter, tap on newsletter, and then give us your email. And I want to emphasize we do not share your email with anybody.

Thank you once again for joining me for today’s discussion about music and your brain. And last but certainly not least, thank you for your interest in science.


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