Grammy Nominees Are a Brainy Bunch: Music Rewires the Brain

Summary: Our brains are hard-wired for the benefits of music. Every time a musician practices, their brains rewire by strengthening synapses, building new neurons, and rebuilding the myelin sheath.

Source: OHSU

The Grammy Awards on Sunday will celebrate the most accomplished musicians of our time, although a neuroscientist at Oregon Health & Science University says music is a boon for virtually anyone who can carry a tune. In fact, he says our brains are hard-wired to the benefits of music.

From that standpoint, Grammy Award nominees may be especially brainy.

“It turns out that practicing a musical instrument might be the most difficult and challenging thing a human brain can do,” says Larry Sherman, Ph.D., a professor in the Division of Neuroscience at the Oregon National Primate Research Center at OHSU.

“You’re integrating sensory and fine motor skills, gross motor skills. You’re holding your instrument, moving your fingers. You’re doing all these things, and it’s rewiring your brain to the point where you can actually become a Grammy-nominated musician.”

Sherman, who has given presentations on the benefits of music and has co-authored a forthcoming book on the topic, says the act of practicing music can help generate neurons, strengthen the connections between brain cells called synapses, and rebuild the myelin sheaths that enable transmission of electrical signals between cells.

“This is an amazing thing that our brain is doing,” he says. “It’s re-wiring itself and remaking itself every time we practice music.”

He says that playing music together in a group may be even more beneficial. Magnetic resonance imaging has shown that music triggers a cascade of neurotransmitters, such as endorphins and dopamine, which are associated with positive feelings. These neurotransmitters can relieve pain and also foster a feeling of communal belonging. The bigger the group, the bigger the effect.

“I always tell people, if only we could get Congress to sing together,” Sherman says.

This shows the outline of a person and music lines
In fact, he says our brains are hard-wired to the benefits of music. Image is in the public domain

Sherman says there’s a case to be made that the communal activity of playing music together has likely bound human communities together for thousands of years.

“The fact that we’ve found flutes in Neanderthal caves means something,” he says.

Sherman’s own research focuses on neurodegeneration, especially in conditions such as multiple sclerosis in which myelin, the protective coating around the nerve fibers in the central nervous system, becomes damaged. He has also worked to popularize neuroscience through a series of public presentations involving his own personal interest in music.

Since his initial joint appearance with Grammy-nominated vocalist Valerie Day and jazz pianist Darrell Grant in Portland in 2008, Sherman has spoken regularly on the neuroscience around music, love, chocolate and even racism through venues such as Science on Tap. He has presented more than 300 times in seven countries, including Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Germany, Ireland, Canada and the United States.

About this music and neuroscience research news

Author: Erik Robinson
Source: OHSU
Contact: Erik Robinson – OHSU
Image: The image is in the public domain

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  1. I had Meneire’s Disease when I was in the crib in the 1950’s BEFORE a vaccine was developed so because of the infection much myelin sheathing was damaged. I’m happy to find out music has the ability to help rebuild the myelin sheathing. I wondered why I couldn’t remember much as I was growing up (esp. in my childhood): then Intractable Epilepsy wasn’t discovered until I was a senior in high school in 1974. So now I’ll repair the bracelet for my ipod….so I can listen to Bach and Kool and The Gang with my earphones that halts outside noises…keeping it soft but with enjoyment knowing it’s working much more. In 1998 I got a VNS….in 2021 I had a drop attack, the first one in 23 years (after a nurse cancelled my 2020 Dr.’s appointment to recharge the batteries) I assume because there were many ill people in the hospital with another virus. I got both vaccines in 2021….3 and 1/2 weeks apart, followed by a couple boosters 5 months and a year later. I get the batteries recharged at OHSU now, as well as have a PCP at the Richmond Clinic. I still take a couple AED’s – lacosamide and cloBAZam… so after taking 30 mg of the first one with dinner, I can get 8 hours of sleep. Obviously medications are better absorbed than the were 35 years ago!

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