Protect Your Brain—With Rhythm

Which songs make you just want to jump out of your seat and move?

For me, the powerful rhythms in Sly and the Family Stone’s “Stand” and James Brown’s “Get Up” immediately do the trick.

But cultures all over the world have been relying on music—and rhythm, in particular—to help energize them since the dawn of humanity. And that’s just one of its many uses.

In fact, people have used rhythm for centuries to withstand long days of grueling work, remain steadfast in times of war, celebrate, foster connection, and serve as a sacred part in traditional ceremonies.

But, as scientists have recently discovered, there’s another major use for rhythm: Strengthening and protecting the health of your brain.

Today I’m going to show you exactly how you can use rhythm to build a better, brighter brain—using nothing but your hands.

The cognitive benefits of music

Brain imaging research has revealed that listening to rhythmic music causes various parts of the brain to “light up.”

According to Canadian neuroscientist, Dr. Daniel Joseph Levitin, listening or singing along to music activates the memory centers in the brain—including the hippocampus (the brain region that controls learning, emotion, and new memory formation) and the frontal lobe (your emotional “control center” and foundation of your personality).

And when you add in the simple act of tapping along to the beat of the music, it also gets your cerebellum involved (the region that coordinates your voluntary muscle movement).

As you can see in the scan below, the brain that’s reacting to music shows a lot more activity than the brain at rest.

your brain on music
IMAGE SOURCE: Medium.com

That’s because the activities I mentioned earlier cause both the left and right hemispheres to work together. This helps strengthen your brain’s communication pathways.

Make music to “grow” a better brain

While listening to music gives your brain a serious workout, making music is even more effective. 

That’s because making music also encourages neuroplasticity—your brain’s ability to change, grow, or reorganize itself whenever you learn something new.

According to research, encouraging neuroplasticity can sharpen memory, enhance cognitive skills, and even restore lost brain connections and functions that haven’t been used for years.

I encourage neuroplasticity in my own brain by learning new rhythms on the drums.

The fact that it’s a rhythm I haven’t played before helps increase the activity of my brain cells (or neurons).

And as I repeat this new beat, signals from the nerves in each of my arms, hands, and ears work together to build a brand-new brain pathway that “stores” this pattern I’m learning.

The more I practice the new rhythm, the more established it becomes in both my mind and my muscle memory.

Neuroplasticity helps my body and brain work together to the point where I’m eventually able to recall this “stored” information and play from memory.

The good news is, you don’t need musical talent to enjoy similar brain benefits. All you need to do is try something new.

The key to boosting brain health with rhythm

Just last night, I had the pleasure of leading a virtual drumming workshop with a large group of people over Zoom.

In the lesson, I taught them that the key to improving brain health with rhythm is to try new things as they drum.

Playing the same rhythms over and over again is an easy habit to fall into—and one that ultimately doesn’t offer much of a benefit.

IMAGE SOURCE: Jim Donovan

Attempting a new rhythm is far more important than doing it perfectly!

And I reminded the workshop attendees that in time, thanks to neuroplasticity, they’d acquire a mental library of fun rhythms for their brain and body to pull out of the “archives”—any time they want to play them!

Today, I encourage you to discover the cognitive benefits rhythm can offer you.

Build a new neural pathway for yourself

Here’s an easy way you can build new brain pathways and reinforce your cognitive health:

  1. Choose one of your favorite songs. It should have a lively beat. (Or you can use one of the songs I mentioned at the beginning of today’s issue!)

  2. Tap your dominant hand along with the beat for a few seconds.

  3. Switch and tap the beat with your other hand.

  4. Then tap the beat with your right foot.

  5. Switch to tap the beat with your left foot.

  6. Continue alternating the limbs you use to tap the beat.

Eventually, you can try creating different rhythmic patterns.

For example, you can try tapping with your left hand and right foot; or your right hand and right foot; or both hands and both feet… the rhythmic combinations are endless!

For even more brain stimulation, try singing along! As I’ve discussed before, singing stimulates your vagus nerve which, as researchers have found, helps create brand new brain cells.

The bottom line? If you want to keep your brain sharp for years to come, challenge your mind daily by trying new things—especially rhythm-based activities.

To help you get started, check out my new virtual coaching sessions. They require only 10 minutes of your time each week. In each session, you’ll learn new ways to naturally improve your health with the power of sound and rhythm. It’s called my InnerSound Method and you can learn more or sign up by simply clicking here!

SOURCES:

Ackerman, C. (2020). What is Neuroplasticity? A Psychologist Explains. PositivePsychology.com. Retrieved from: positivepsychology.com/neuroplasticity/#:~:text=Neuroplasticity%20in%20Adults&text=It%20can%20restore%20old%2C%20lost,even%20enhance%20overall%20cognitive%20skills.

Cherry, K. (2020). What is the Hippocampus? Verywellmind.com. Retrieved from: verywellmind.com/what-is-the-hippocampus-2795231

Frontal Lobes. (n.d.). Centre for Neuro Skills. Retrieved from: neuroskills.com/brain-injury/frontal-lobes/

Jacobi, B. (2019). Psychological Effects of Music. Medium. Retrieved from: medium.com/@jacobi.brynn23/psychological-effects-of-music-f5cb13feba0a

Jun, P. (2019). Music, Rhythm, and the Brain. BrainWorld Magazine. Retrieved from: brainworldmagazine.com/music-rhythm-brain/

Northrup, C. (2016). 10 Health Reasons to Start Drumming. Dr. Northrup.com. Retrieved from: drnorthrup.com/health-benefits-drumming/

Ruhr-University Bochum. (2019). How playing the drums changes the brain. ScienceDaily.com. Retrieved from: sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/12/191209110513.htm

Jim Donovan image
About the author

Jim Donovan M.Ed., is a professional musician and educator. He's an Assistant Professor at Saint Francis University where he teaches music and how the power of sound can help you experience a healthier life.