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Q&A: How Music Can Cultivate a Healthy Brain

AARP sits down with neuroscientist Julene Johnson to explore the potential mental and physical health benefits of music 


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Julene Johnson is a cognitive neuroscientist at the Institute for Health & Aging at the University of California, San Francisco.
Elisabeth Fall / Courtesy Julene Johnson

AARP's Music and Memory project explores the extraordinary role music plays in our lives and on our health.  As part of the series, AARP spoke with Julene Johnson, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Institute for Health & Aging at the University of California, San Francisco, to discuss music's role in the health of our brains.

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How did you get involved in researching the impact of music on brain health?

I studied performance and music therapy in college. But I shifted to researching cognitive neuroscience and aging after observing an older woman with dementia who suddenly started playing piano in an adult day center. Everyone in the room came to life and started moving, tapping their feet and dancing. I was struck by how impactful something as simple as someone playing a tune had on the whole room. That inspired me to better understand what it is about music that affects us.

What are some of the overlooked benefits that involvement with music can bring?

We want people to be functional, safe and get a good night’s sleep; to have meaningful things to do during the day. People don’t think about music helping with these activities or with sleep. But it does. Dancing with music will improve physical function. That’s a link people don’t make. And our research shows singing in a choir eases loneliness and improves self-esteem. If you’re a caregiver, music is something you should think about as part of your care plan.

You’re a leader in the Sound Health Network. What is that?

There is all of this potential for music to help improve lives. The network is getting that information out to the public. We’re part of a collaboration with the the National Endowment for the Arts, National Institutes of Health, the Kennedy Center and opera star Renée Fleming to do more research.

There’s a lot of work to develop drugs to treat dementia. Where does music fit?

I’ve been in this field almost 30 years, and we still don’t have any [drugs] that are particularly successful in helping families and people living with dementia. We’ve known for centuries that music has health benefits, going back to early philosophers and thinkers. This is not a new topic. But there’s more to learn. NIH just launched a five-year research project to accelerate studies about music and dementia. I hope we’ll gather more information on what works and doesn’t work.

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As you’ve studied the history of music and health, what one finding grabbed you?

The most striking thing was an 1850s observation that musical ability was often preserved in people who’d had a stroke and could not speak. Yet they could sing. That finding sparked research to learn what it is about music that’s so special in the context of [brain] injury and disease — how music is preserved when language is not.

Will you keep music in your life as you age?

Music has been a part of my life, back to the days when my sister and I would play for my grandmother who had dementia in the nursing home. I plan to get back to performing in a Latin fusion flute-guitar duo and to continue to improve my playing of the kantele, a finger-plucking string instrument from Finland. I’m taking my own advice ... and connecting more deeply with my family music roots.

Read more about the importance of music and brain health, test your memory of hit songs and more at aarp.org/musicandmemory.

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