Recent scientific studies have found that music is closely linked to mind-body mechanisms, cognition, learning, communication, and emotion. This modern research only reinforces that music can improve mental, emotional, and physical well-being.<1> But how can we enhance our ability to learn, play and perform musical instruments, all of which place heavy cognitive demands on the brain? Brain-boosting nootropics for musicians may help.
Music and the Brain
It’s no secret that sound and music affect most of us on a very deep level. You’ve probably felt shivers run up your spine or the hairs on your forearm rise in response to a really good piece of music.
On the other hand, dissonant sounds like fingernails scraping across a chalkboard can cause serious cringing. These reactions may boil down to evolutionary response.
Our brains interpret musical cadences and intervals like our lives depend on it. Maybe that was once the case. Before language, our early ancestors may have used musical patterns to communicate, and communication would have been paramount for the survival of the species.
Today, more than 6900 languages are spoken throughout the world, and yet every culture understands music the same way.
To illustrate this, Tom Fritz studied an indigenous tribe in Cameroon, Africa. Fritz played classical music for members of the Mafa tribe and observed their response. Tribe members play handmade flutes and percussion instruments every day, but none of them had ever heard a piano, violin or common Western progression like I-IV-V.
Fritz showed tribe members three photos of the same woman, each portraying a different emotion: happy, sad, or scared. Then he played three classical compositions, each related to one of the emotions depicted. Most tribe members correctly matched the music with the related emotion.
Although music in general activates most parts of the brain, different types and aspects of music are processed by specific parts of the brain, including:
What we perceive as “scary” music is often loud, fast, and frequently dissonant. This combination stimulates a stress response in the amygdala, one of the most primitive areas of the brain and the center of the brain associated with “fight or flight.”<2>
Processed in the prefrontal cortex, rhythm can regulate motor skills and autonomic functions.<3> Music between 60 and 85 beats per minute can regulate breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure, functions of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) processed by the brainstem, particularly the medulla.
Music stimulates various neurotransmitters that trigger emotional stimulation.
“Happy” music, usually in major keys with a lot of major intervals and embellishments, encourages the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain like dopamine, prolactin, and oxytocin - the “bonding” chemical.<4> This is why music can have the same effect on the brain as sex or drugs.
One of music’s superpowers is the ability to bring back long-lost memories with just a song, or even part of a song. Music activates the temporal lobe, which plays a key role in long-term memory and stores sensory information like smells, tastes, moments, feelings, and a whole world of other memories and sensations.
For musicians, playing the perfect musical sequence can create a sense of euphoria, a silver moment in time when everything is on point, almost angelic, beyond space and time. The long-term memory bank of the hippocampus allows practice to make perfect and inpires such golden moments of seeming perfection.
It would take a book to describe how much the brain affects musical performance and vice versa, but here are a few key areas to focus on and how they work.
Music stimulates more brain activity at once than any other thing we know of, so being a musician places unique demands on the brain.
Some common cognitive challenges that musicians face are:
- Performance anxiety
Performing in front of an audience can stress both the brain and nervous system. Commonly called stage fright, high levels of anxiety are pretty common before a performance.
On top of dealing with general nervousness, musicians often have to memorize long musical scores or song collections and perform from memory, either solo or as a group.
Musicians have to maintain focus and concentration while learning, practicing, and performing music, and at the same time they have to instill a lyrical, emotional quality to the music to make it worth listening to.
Composers and songwriters have to engage the right brain’s creative flow to create new musical ideas, but they also have to engage the left brain’s logical patterning to arrange compositions which have a beginning, middle, and end that sound like a complete story or theme.
Musicians use both right and left brain more than most people, combining emotions and other abstract concepts with specific mathematical rhythms and pitch progressions.
The corpus callosum links the two brain hemispheres through a large bundle of nerve fibers. Dual stimulation strengthens connections in the corpus callosum and enables the brain to exercise both temporal lobes, or hippocampi, at the same time.<5>
Playing an instrument increases connections between neural pathways in right and left hemispheres and promotes neuroplasticity throughout the brain.
Studies show that professional musician’s brains have 130 percent more grey matter in the auditory cortex and 102 percent more brain activity than the brains of non-musicians. Even amateur musician’s brains show 32 percent more activity than non-musicians. That’s some serious brain training.
To store all this activity, the hippocampus converts short term memory to long term memory, and it’s here that muscle memory and memorized musical forms stay. Without a healthy hippocampus, scores, lyrics, and other musical memories might be forgotten like last week’s unmemorable lunch. And playing music can stimulate growth in the hippocampus, one of the few areas of the brain that can grow new neurons.
Sometimes musicians have to improvise within the context of a song, especially during live performance. Jazz musicians improvise throughout nearly every performance, which is why jazz is considered the most challenging musical genre, at least in Western music. Soloists in most genres of music usually improvise at least a little during performances.
In classical music, solos are generally already written note for note, but sometimes classical soloists are asked to create their own pieces and make them fit seamlessly into the larger pre-written composition. And in almost any performance, if you forget the exact notes or rhythm you’re supposed to play during a live performance, improvising can help you fake it so the audience never has a clue that your part wasn’t intended to go that way.
That said, it’s best to effortlessly remember how to play your part from beginning to end. Even the best musicians falter from time to time, but you can supplement your skills with natural nootropics for musicians.
Here are the key cognitive functions musicians use most often and some tips for how you can enhance them.
The hippocampus is the storage room of the brain. It’s where short-term memories turn into long-term memories. It also regulates spatial memory and behavior, a key ingredient for tempo and rhythm. The striatum, in the basal ganglia system (inside the cerebral cortex) is responsible for the retrieval of procedural memory, including the muscle memory musicians rely on when replaying a learned song. Memory and music are intertwined. Nootropics for musicians include clinically-backed memory-enhancers.
Related to memory are studying and learning various aspects of music. Some nootropics for musicians support learning and studying quite effectively, potentially accelerating or otherwise enhancing how we learn new scales, new songs, new instruments and more.
Focus and Concentration
Focus and concentration are important when learning a song or practicing scales and rhythms. Unless you have a soundproof room or studio to practice in, distractions seem to invade the most crucial moments of a practice session.
Whether it’s getting bored with repetition, your cell phone ringing, or the dog wanting attention, there are no shortage of distractions that can draw you away from your practice. Musicians must dedicate time and focus to improve or maintain skills. Anything that can improve focus and concentration is truly priceless.
Performing in front of an audience can be stressful. Nervousness is a natural part of performing for an audience, and it’s very common for musicians to experience performance anxiety before a show. People use various methods to deal with stage fright, including unhealthy substances. Luckily, there are natural and healthy ways to calm your nerves without nasty side effects or long-term consequences.
Most people spend their waking hours in a somewhat frenetic beta brainwave state. The beta state helps to-do lists get checked off, but it doesn’t really promote creativity. Studies show that an alpha state can help calm the left brain and stimulate the more creative right brain. Being in an alpha brainwave state helps deepen the breath and brings more oxygen to the brain, allowing your creative ideas to rise to the surface.
Rhythm, tempo, intervals, and notation are all mathematical musical elements. The left brain rules the mathematical reasoning, logic, and critical thinking that are necessary for playing music well. Whether it’s reading music, playing rhythmic patterns, following a conductor for dynamic or tempo changes, or writing musical intervals and modes, musicians constantly use math. After all, music is a mathematical language.
The frontal cortex has dense connections with auditory regions in the brain, an important connection that links sounds with motor actions - either hand or articulatory. This connection enables musicians to retain “muscle memory,” a phenomenon where the hands “remember” fingering patterns and tempos even if the conscious brain has forgotten.
The prefrontal cortex processes rhythm and regulates tempo in human motor function, which is why many musicians tap their foot to help maintain a steady rhythm while playing, and why Parkinson’s patients often show vast improvements in motor function when listening to steady rhythms over not listening to music. It’s pretty remarkable to watch a person go from a shaking, faltering gait to a slow but steady pace simply by listening to a suitable soundtrack.
Acquiring musical expertise requires extensive practice. Professional musicians practice up to 50 hours a week. While practice is important to develop musical skill, musicians can get bored practicing scales and rhythm patterns over and over and over again. Self-motivation can set great musicians apart from mediocre ones. Motivation spurs greater creativity, passion, and productivity for better composition, practice, and performance.
Listening to music, performing music for an audience, or attending performances can increase motivation based on external outcomes, but intrinsic motivation requires skill-building, focus, confidence, and interest in the activity itself, not just the outcome.
Mind Lab Pro® Nootropics for Musicians
Music stimulates activity in more areas of the human brain at once than any other single thing we know of. PET and fMRI brain scans of subjects listening to or playing music light up more brilliantly in comparison to subjects not playing or listening to music.
Music is the Universal Language. Mind Lab Pro® is great for musicians because it is the Universal Nootropic™, boosting the whole brain’s performance.
Mind Lab Pro®’s toolbox of nootropics for musicians includes:
This is the best botanical memory booster, supporting the learning process and both short and long-term memory. B. monnieri can help musicians learn music faster and remember how to play it longer. It also stimulates GABA and serotonin, which help balance mood, reduce stress, and increase cognition.
Faster learning, longer memory, and less stress are tools every musician can use.
This is great for reducing stress and promoting clear, energetic thinking. For musicians, calm nerves and peak mental performance go together like peanut butter and chocolate.
R. Rosea works best at times of high stress, kicking in to balance emotions, fight fatigue, and optimize mental and physical endurance for up to 6 hours. Take this herbal adaptogen nootropic before a performance for calm, quick thinking and improvisational skills that will last the whole show.
This nootropic boosts working memory and mental performance when under stress or when there are multiple tasks at hand. Musicians are always multitasking. Whether you’re practicing by yourself, playing with a group, or live on stage, N-Acetyl L-Tyrosine can help.
N-Acetyl L-Tyrosine is another nootropic for musicians that amps up under pressure to boost mental performance, reduce fatigue, and improve mood in stressful situations.
A great overall brain booster, citicoline itself is a major multitasker. For musicians, though, citicoline’s specific benefits target energy, focus, and attention.
Musicians perform better with an energized, alert mind, but stimulants can make performance worse. Citicoline is a stimulant-free brain energizer that may encourage peak cognitive performance without the crash that comes with stimulants like caffeine.
Caffeine and Performing
The effects of caffeine and symptoms of performance anxiety are pretty similar. Shaky hands, dry mouth, shortness of breath, rapid heart beat. Most performers have experienced stage fright at some point. Nootropics for musicians to ease the common bouts of anxiety musicians feel before a show and improve focus, but caffeine’s not the best choice.
While a pre-performance energy boost can help players perform their best, musicians should avoid coffee and energy drinks. Caffeinated or sugary drinks can give a temporary burst of energy but ultimately, the inevitable crash will work against you. You’ll lose focus and feel sluggish, and that can definitely affect your performance.
Some musicians notice that they tend to overplay when caffeinated, while others claim it impairs motor skills. Everyone is different, and some people can handle caffeine better than others, but if you want to give a peak performance, cut the caffeine.
Musicians can definitely benefit from the creative, calm, cheerful state that generally accompanies an alpha brainwave state, but composers can take it to another level.
L-Theanine helps put the brain into a state of wakeful relaxation. The alpha brainwave state aids creative problem solving, new learning, art, and other tasks that benefit from quiet reflection. Debussy’s ‘Reverie’ perfectly exemplifies the alpha state.
This is the best overall nootropic for memory, especially long-term memory. Every musician knows it’s easy to forget how a song you haven’t played in years goes. It’s all about recalling the first couple of bars. If you can remember the intro, the rest comes flooding back.
Phosphatidylserine (PS) can help stoke the embers of that long-lost memory and bring it to the surface. Not saying you’ll never have a, “How does that song go?” moment again, but it might happen less with a little PS.
Lion’s Mane Mushroom
Lion’s Mane mushroom is clinically shown to support the synthesis of brain-building Nerve Growth Factor (NGF). NGF helps maintain and regenerate neurons and promotes the growth and connection of brain cells in a process called plasticity.
Neuroplasticity helps brain cells and neurons adapt and form new neural connections. Since musicians use both brain hemispheres at once, Lion’s Mane could facilitate new neural connections between the two halves. This neural connectivity is very good for things like learning new instruments, making adaptations to previously learned music, and learning new fingering patterns.
Musicians use most of the brain any time they’re playing. Focus, creativity, energy, motor function learning, and memory are all important parts of musical practice and performance. It’s hard to be at your best for every rehearsal and performance, but the right supplements may help up your game.
Whether you’re learning a new piece or instrument, writing a song, or performing a set you’ve done a hundred times, nootropics for musicians can help.
- Mind Lab Pro®, the Universal Nootropic™, enhances multiple brain functions that are important for learning, playing and performing music. A stimulant-free brain supplement, Mind Lab Pro® is the ideal nootropic for musicians who want to unlock their brains' full creative and artistic potential.
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- Schwanz, S. (2015). Music and the Unconscious Mind: The Autonomic Nervous System in Response to Basic Musical Rhythms. Western Undergraduate Psychology Journal, 3 (1).
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