How Listening to Favorite, Long-Known Music Enhances Our Brain Plasticity, Cognitive Performance

By: Jem Golden, Sessional University Lecturer/Tutor, Strategic Research Consultant, Analyst/Writer


Listening to music, playing an instrument, singing, or doing all of this provides us with deep satisfaction and pleasure. As a social or solitary activity, it can be mood-enhancing and evocative. In addition, fascinating and hugely valuable ongoing scientific research is also showing profound long-term benefits of regular musical exposure to our brains.

I wrote earlier about work by Dr. Luisa Speranza (Albert Einstein College of Medicine) showing that simply listening to music can have beneficial effects by enhancing cognitive function. The groundbreaking research clearly struck a deep chord [pun intended] with readers generating thousands of reads, and I also received many comments and direct messages, often extremely moving, explaining how people now better understood why music had helped support and sustain their recoveries from complex neurological challenges.

Another article I wrote highlighted Dr. Claire Howlin’s research (University of Cambridge) the importance of having autonomy in making musical selections to alleviate chronic pain. Additionally the study team, took a deep dive to understand the psychological mechanisms that explain why different types of music can lead to a reduction in pain.

FIGURE 1. Brain activity associated with long-known and recently-heard music listening. Shows areas of significant group-level activation associated with long-known music listening (top row) and recently-heard music listening (middle row) A direct comparison (bottom row) shows areas of greater activation (red) during long-known music listening compared with recently-heard music listening.

Copyright: Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease

Summary of Findings on Benefits of Listening to ‘Well-Known’ Music

Music in general has been linked to enhanced memory performance, irrespective of whether it is long-known to the listener or only recently-heard.

However, researchers at the University of Toronto (U of T) and Unity Health Toronto have demonstrated that repeated listening to music that is personally meaningful induces beneficial brain plasticity in patients with mild cognitive impairment or early Alzheimer’s disease.

These observed changes in the brain’s neural pathways through brains scans taken before and after the listening experiments were notable in the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s control centre where deep cognitive processes occur.

The research team also observed differences in the brain’s connections and white matter, providing further evidence of neuroplasticity.

These findings above correlated with improvements in the memory performance on neuropsychological tests, and therefore it shows there is clinical potential for it being used in music-based interventions for people with dementia.

The multi-modal study was led by Professor Michael Thaut, senior author and director of University of Toronto’s Music and Health Science Research Collaboratory, and co-leader Dr. Corinne E. Fischer, Associate Professor and Psychiatrist, University of Toronto. The article was first published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.


The purpose of the study was to examine whether a program involving intensive listening to long-known music in this case for one hour a day for three weeks (a homebased intervention) results in changes in brain structure and function and corresponding improvements in global memory performance for patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or early Alzheimer’s Disease (AD).

Seventeen subjects with AD were assigned a personalized music playlist. The research team selected a period of three weeks intensive listening was selected as it was felt this time frame was supported by the literature and it was sufficiently long for a pilot study to incur benefit yet sufficiently short to maximise the feasibility of being adhered to by the participants.

During music listening, the participants were asked to focus on the music and not perform any other tasks concurrently. Caregivers, e.g. close family members, were encouraged to participate in these listening sessions and to ask meaningful questions such as “What does this music remind you of?” The participants apparently found the experiment both useful and pleasant as indicated by their strong level of commitment to the study protocol.

Definition of ‘Favorite Long-Known Music’ Used in This Research

Long-known music was defined for the purpose of the study as instrumental or vocal music recognized by the participant as his/her preferred music that was known to them for at least twenty years, and that held special meaning for them (e.g., the music they danced to at their wedding).

A musical playlist was compiled based on participant responses and, during a subsequent follow-up, the participant was asked to listen to songs from the playlist in order to verify that the music held special meaning. Recorded versions of music were selected over live versions.

The factors that influenced the selection of music included meaningfulness, quality of recording, and length of the piece. The range of musical genres featured in the personalized playlists included pop, jazz, classical (both instrumental and vocal), folk, soul, country, songs from musicals, and international music (Indian, Italian, and French, among others).

Conclusion of Findings

The analysis identified strong differences in the cognitive outcomes distinguishing

recently experienced music listening from long-known music listening.

For the former outcome, activation was mainly limited to temporal regions associated with auditory processing.

In the latter findings, activation was more extensive and included distributed cerebellar, subcortical, and frontal regions. These findings are broadly consistent with studies of autobiographical memory, where there is a tendency to identify frontal and temporal activations with right lateralisation of clusters.

As an additional key study outcome, the study also characterized brain networks associated with music listening, and further identified consistent functional and structural correlates of the music-based intervention. mechanisms of memory enhancement include elevated brain dopamine levels; improved mood and anxiety symptoms; increased arousal; neurogenesis, and synaptic plasticity. Long-known music has the added benefit of evoking autobiographical memories, potentially augmenting sense of self, which has been shown to deteriorate with the progression of AD.

Sources for This Article:

Long-Known Music Exposure Effects on Brain Imaging and Cognition in Early-Stage Cognitive Decline: A Pilot Study by Fischer Corrine E. et al published in Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 84 (2021) 819–833 DOI 10.3233/JAD-210610

A link to Professor Michael Thaut academic profile and publications:

Two Bespoke Playlists for Excitement and Contemplation

Method and Madness– Jem’s  recentish released,19 loved Irish traditional influenced tracks

Jem’s 21 manymessages-of-love-hip hop-inspired groovestixx/3!