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Music isn't just beautiful, it can change the way our brains function at any age.

I still remember that feeling I had as a young teenager, holed up in my room playing guitar, feeling the vibrations of the lower notes, playing fragments of riffs over and over. In my little room, with my instrument, I felt peaceful and comfortable. The wiggly movements of my fingers on the strings transferred into tones, tickling my belly and chest like a meditative, musical massage. This became a daily practice and helped me cope with my stormy household and my own down moods. Playing, hearing and feeling the guitar did something for me that I didn’t fully comprehend at the time: It made me feel better, more in myself. It reset my mind and made everything seem okay.

Years later, I continued improvising, writing music, playing in bands. I kept wanting to include the audience somehow; I didn’t feel it was enough to just play for them. Reflecting back, I think I was trying to help listeners recognize how they could be in the music like I had—not only as an aesthetic experience, but a transformational one.

One night in the backroom of the old Speakeasy, near the end of my set, I passed out about 30 mouthbows for audience members to play. Many were game, but the look on others’ faces—well it was clear they’d come to listen, not play. That’s when it hit me: I was trying to engage people in a collaborative music-making experience, not a performance. Soon after, I moved to Salem, Ore., to finish my bachelor’s degree in music, studying music therapy.

Most of us use music for more than entertainment. We use it to motivate us or to set the tempo for exercise, to calm our minds or quiet our bodies for rest. “Two Lips, Two Lungs and One Tongue” by NoMeansNo can pick me up when I’m feeling low and remind me to have realistic expectations. “Taking Tiger Mountain” by Brian Eno usually makes it onto a travel playlist; it’s a great chill-out song and it’s comforting on a long plane ride.

Music helps us throughout our lives. Young people often shape their identities and social groups based on their explorations of musical genres, sometimes with lifelong emotional significance. Musical mnemonics help us remember information, like learning the alphabet using the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” and as we age, it can help us recall meaningful parts of our past, even when dementia claims many of our memories.

We may never know how humans used music before written history, but sophisticated instruments appear to have been used when humans were still hunting and gathering. In Germany, archaeologists discovered a bone flute with finger holes that would have allowed it to play a pentatonic scale. The flute was dated 30,000–40,000 years ago, when early Homo sapiens were still colonizing Europe, suggesting that tonal music gave them some advantage. Some evolutionary theorists argue that music-making likely contributed to the development of language, as well as to the neural architecture of the human brain. Montreal neuroscientist Dan Levitin has suggested that music is partly responsible for the development of civilization, based on how it contributes to social organization and conflict resolution.

Humans have an innate responsiveness to music, and our experiences with it—from before birth until we die—affect the way our brains develop. Infants across cultures recognize deviations in a steady rhythm and six-year-old children have structural brain changes after studying piano for 15 months. Even adult brains are changed after music training.

Today neuroscience shows us how music influences brain function. The most exciting recent development is a practice called Neurologic Music Therapy. NMT is based on studies that use neuro-imaging to observe living brains while they engage in specific tasks and music exercises under experimental conditions. Researchers have found that the brain processes music on many of the same neural networks shared with non-musical functions, and that music can sometimes provide an alternate pathway for speaking and movement when the non-musical network is damaged by injury or illness. Researchers also believe that the steady beat of music provides a timing structure for the brain to plan and sequence movements, which can help people who are struggling to walk due to a neurological condition.

But you don’t have to be hospitalized to benefit from music therapy. Music therapists in private practice offer wellness programs, memory care for elders and support for children with special needs. In my own practice, I work with kids—helping motivate young children to walk again by moving with a beat or calm themselves before an upcoming procedure. These are the moments I feel music being used to its full capacity, when we are in the music.

David Knott, MT-BC has worked as a board certified music therapist at Seattle Children’s Hospital since 2002 and been a Fellow in the Academy of Neurologic Music Therapy since 2007.

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