Music, emotion and motion

As a team, these three can contribute not only to our wellbeing, but to better treatment outcomes when we’re mentally ill or in physical pain. They can play a vital part in the development and maintenance of our cognitive abilities. With every technological advance, we see more detail of how our brains function and respond, bringing to light and in some cases proving what many of us believe - that music and humanity are intrinsically entwined.

Since the 1970s, neuroscientists have been able to gather detailed imagery of human brains in living people via Computed Tomography (CT scans) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI); of brain activity using functional MRI (fMRI) and even neural tract modelling from data collected using Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI), from the 1990s. Prior to that Electroencephalography (EEG) was used to measure electrical activity in the brain.


fMRI in particular, has made possible discoveries in neuroscience and related applied therapies showing music to be an effective intervention for an increasing range of conditions.


Study results from the past decade include: regular and frequent dancing in old age reducing by a huge margin the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s 1; Parkinson’s sufferers moving with ease2 and/or dancing to familiar music which has a strong rhythm3; dementia patients recalling whole song melodies and lyrics and/or singing when they otherwise barely speak4.


Observed evidence includes Alzheimer’s patients learning and remembering dance steps even though they don’t recall having met the instructor previously5; being sung to reducing pre-operative anxiety and post-operative pain6, as well as facilitating inner calm and happiness for the terminally ill7; programmes which involve listening to, making and/or creating music, providing mindful focus and emotional expression for people with mental illness8. A currently proposed study will look at how rhythmic music can be used to help stroke victims regain use of affected limbs9.


Other benefits which extend to all people are sociability, cooperative achievement and the natural highs that can be gained from playing music or singing in a group.


Various combinations of active listening, familiarity with pieces, singing, playing, learning, reading music, improvising and dancing have the brain firing in multiple areas within and across hemispheres, engaging fine and gross motor skills, spurring cognitive development, and a great deal of both unconscious emotional response and conscious feeling. Music is closely tied to emotion, and as neurosociologist David Franks notes “Emotion can be seen as the ineffable language of the body in contrast to the linguistic language of the mind” (Stets, Turner. 2006).


Naturally there are still a lot of unknowns with regard to the specific effects of different kinds of music on people with different conditions. However, the big picture points to a combination of music, movement and emotional engagement being safe, inexpensive, easily accessible and one of the most beneficial therapeutic interventions known to humankind. It is also quite possibly the most enjoyable! Music wholistically addresses the complex interplay of our emotions, feelings, cognition and physicality. It’s high quality health care.



Franks, David D. "The Neuroscience Of Emotions". Handbook Of The Sociology Of Emotions. Jan Stets and Jonathan H. Turner (eds). New York: Springer, 2006. 38-62.