Scientists have known for a while now that listening to music has a bounty of physical and mental benefits: It reduces blood pressure, causes the release of dopamine and even improves muscle function. Though music clearly affects our brains, scientists didn’t know what caused those mental changes on a molecular level — until now.
Scientists at the University of Helsinki have made the amazing discovery, published in PeerJ, that listening to classical music actually alters the function of your genes. Scientists took blood samples from study participants before and after listening to Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K.216. Scientists found that the music directly affects human RNA, suggesting that listening to music has even more surprising benefits than previously thought. It affects the very core of your biological being.
This is an unprecedented amount of insight into how exactly music influences human beings. Scientists have previously used PET scans to watch the brain as it processes music. But with the introduction of genomics, scientists can look even closer by sampling blood and identifying its molecular properties. 48 people participated in this study, and they were split into two groups: those who had musical experience and those who were inexperienced. What the researchers found in the experienced group was striking.
Good for you in every way: For the musically inclined group, the study uncovered huge genetic benefits after listening to classical music. Listening to music increased expression of the glucocorticoid receptor, which regulates stress, depression and even addictive behaviors. Not only that, listening to music also inhibits dopamine reuptake, meaning that the brain has more of the molecule that regulates the brain’s reward center.
Music does all this by getting the good genes moving, specifically, those that help with mood, memory, learning and basic brain function. But music also slows down bad genes that cause brain degeneration, meaning that listening to music actually acts like a brain shield. A set of the genes affected are the same genes that help songbirds learn new songs. This suggests that there may actually be a shared, deep evolutionary background between our love of music and birds’ use of music, a link some classical musicians may already have intuited.
The study found the strongest responses among those familiar with the music. participants without musical backgrounds didn’t experience any noticeable benefits. These findings only cemented the fact that childhood music lessons are extremely beneficial to cognitive function: “We observed no significant findings in musically inexperienced participants,” either naturally or through lack of learning, the study authors suggested.
But Kanduri still thinks it might influence everyone positively. “We cannot exclude the possibility of a similar effect in musically inexperienced participants,” Kanduri noted. “Several factors such as age, gender, personal preferences of music genres, the familiarity of music compositions and duration of listening may affect the transcriptional responses.”
Whether or not classical music affects the less musically inclined equally, the list of reasons to learn music just got a lot more compelling. It’s never been clearer that music really can change us.