Remember how Baby Mozart was supposed to turn your infant into a genius? Though that claim has been discredited, it turns out that playing or listening to classical music might boost the brain, and at any age.
According to a new study from the University of Helsinki, the dulcet tones of Brahms, Beethoven and other classical musicians enhance genes involved in motor behavior, learning and memory, and the release of the happy brain chemical dopamine.
“Sound is important in evolution to protect us, and music is also sound,” explains lead researcher Dr. Irma Jarvela, associate professor of medical molecular genetics at the University of Helsinki.
Researchers, publishing in the journal Scientific Reports, looked at brain scans of professional musicians before and after they played two hours of classical music, and compared them to scans of musicians who did a non-musical activity.
In the experiment, classical tunes also seemed to modify genes – in particular a gene known as SNCA – that control the death of neurons, seen with diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. “By affecting dopamine pathways, music silenced the genes that are risk factors for dementia,” Jarvela says.
Although this experiment looked at the cognitive changes in the classical musicians themselves, Jarvela believes that at least some of the changes – certainly to the SNCA gene – occur in listeners as well.
Several of the genes that get dialed up in humans are also known to be responsible for song production in songbirds, a link that highlights the possible role of sound perception and production in survival across species.
Earlier research has shown music performance to cause structural and functional changes in the human brain and enhance cognition, but this was the first study to uncover the molecular mechanisms behind those effects.
And as to whether other music genres have brain-boosting power, Jarvela suspects that jazz, with its improvisation and creativity, could also have an effect on gene expression.