Study: Exercise and Music Clear the Brain

ByLee Dye

April 1, 2004 -- Exercise is good for the body as well as the psyche, according to scads of scientific research. But here's a new wrinkle. If you listen to music while exercising, your brain will probably work better too.

Clinical psychologist Charles Emery of Ohio State University has studied the effect of exercise on various types of patients over the years, and to no one's surprise he has found that it helps in many ways. But as a lover of music, as well as an exercise enthusiast, Emery decided to kick his research up another notch and see what would happen if he combined those two passions.

"I've always thought that music had many benefits for people, and increasingly people use music when they exercise, so it seemed like a logical next step in terms of a research project," Emery says.

So along with Evana Hsiao and Scott Hill of Ohio State, and David Frid of Pfizer, Inc., Emery put his theory to the test, with the help of 33 men and women in the final weeks of a cardiac rehabilitation program. Each of the participants were tested for mental performance after exercising without music, and exercising with music.

The results were very convincing.

Vivaldi Tested, But Not Limited

On average, the participants performed more than twice as well on a verbal fluency test after listening to music while exercising than they did after exercising without the music.

"When there was no music, there was no change," Emery says.

Emery chose Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" for the project because prior research by other scientists with that particular piece indicated that it helped patients with lung disease perform better mentally.

Emery suspects, however, that similar benefits could be gained by listening to all kinds of music, not just classical. The passionate, upbeat rhythms of "The Four Seasons" may stimulate mental performance because it is complex, thus forcing the brain to organize neural transmissions. But other selections might work better for some people.

"I don't think there is anything specific to Vivaldi or even classical music that would necessarily trigger enhanced brain function," Emery says. But he is pretty confident these days that music makes a difference, whether it is jazz, hip hop, or classical.

And while his research was centered on cardiac patients, because they often suffer some mental decline as a result of their illness, Emery thinks it works for everybody, not just those who are sick.

Music Enhances Frontal Lobe

Listening to music is a more complex endeavor than it seems on the surface. The human brain has to sort out tones, and timing, and sequencing of various sounds, to comprehend music. So according to theory, that should fire up the frontal lobe of the brain, the part of the brain that is associated with higher mental functions, like thinking abstract thoughts, or planning for the future.

So the researchers used a simple but widely respected test to see if the frontal lobe became more active in participants who listened to music while exercising. The test involves sequencing, within narrow limits, and some degree of mental agility, all functions of the frontal lobe.

Each participant was given a letter of the alphabet and told to generate as many words as he or she could think of beginning with that letter, both before and after exercising. But they couldn't just add a different ending, like past tense, to generate a new word, and they weren't allowed to repeat any words, so they had to remember what they had already said. They were given one minute to come up with as many words as possible.

After exercising without music, there was no change. But with music, wham-o, more than double the performance, on average.

The research doesn't reveal whether the improvement lasts very long, or whether it diminishes quickly, but it seems reasonable that this bit of mental stimulation works for the brain like exercise works for the body. The more you do it, the more those muscles — including the ones between the ears — stay in tune and function more efficiently.

Lots of questions remain unanswered, of course, because this is a complex area of research, and it's pretty new, despite the fact humans have wondered about the effects of music for centuries.

"It's a provocative area of research," says Emery, who plans to do more in the future. But for now he's going to concentrate on his bike, and walking up stairs instead of taking an elevator, and remaining physically active.

And, of course, just listening to music.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.