DID you know that not only does 'music soothe the savage breast,' it is also a powerful ally for our health? The practices of listening to music and playing it improve not only our mental well-being, but also our cognitive abilities. Let's take a look at the myriad brain benefits of music, on the occasion of Brain Awareness Week.

Almost no one is immune to the power of music. While preferences vary, music touches us in our hearts... and our brains.

This is why listening to and playing music are increasingly recommended by the medical community, starting from a very young age. Studies have shown that music acts as a neurostimulant on babies, especially premature ones.

Swiss researchers at the University Hospital of Geneva have found that music promotes the development of sensory and cognitive functions in these newborns.

To reach this conclusion, the scientists commissioned composer Andreas Vollenweider to create three melodies to accompany the infants' phases of waking, awakening and falling asleep.

They found that the neural networks of babies exposed to these compositions developed more efficiently than those of other premature infants.

The impact of music on the cognitive and executive functions of our brain is already well established, especially in children.

Recent discoveries show that music modifies the biochemical processes of the brain by reinforcing cerebral plasticity. This would explain why it has beneficial effects on the intellectual development of toddlers.

Research conducted by Christina Zhao and Patricia Kuhl, who are both based at the University of Washington's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, confirmed this back in 2016.

They found, with medical neuroimaging to back it up, that listening to music influences the development of speech learning skills in babies.

"We know that babies learn rapidly from a wide range of experiences, and we think music can be an important experience that may influence their brain development," Christina Zhao told CBS News at the time.

Playing music "engages the whole brain"

This beneficial effect on brain plasticity continues throughout childhood and adult life.

For example, playing an instrument allowed for speedier increases in one's intelligence quotient (IQ). A team of researchers, led by experts from the Stanford University School of Medicine, studied the cognitive functions of 153 musicians and non-musicians.

They found a significant difference in the brain structure of musicians who started playing an instrument at an early age, whether it was the piano, clarinet, trumpet or violin.

They showed stronger brain connections than those who started musical training later.

For Anita Collins, a researcher specializing in brain development and music learning, music offers what can be described as exercise for the brain.

"[W]hile listening to music engages the brain in some pretty interesting activities, playing music is the brain's equivalent of a full-body workout," she explained in a Ted Talk.

"Playing a musical instrument engages practically every area of the brain at once, especially the visual, auditory cortex, and motor cortices.

As with any other workout, disciplined, structured practice in playing music strengthens those brain functions, allowing us to apply that strength to other activities."

One thing is certain: the more you practice an instrument, the more you benefit from these effects. But listening to music can also bring many benefits.

First, it can help regulate your mood. Cognitive neurosciences assert that music provides a feeling of pleasure by activating our reward circuit.

This system, set up by natural selection to regulate our desires and emotions, increases the release of dopamine, the famous "happiness hormone." In fact music is now used as a therapeutic tool in healthcare institutions.

The persistence of musical memory

Music therapy has also proven to be effective in treating stress and pain management.

An increasing number of music workshops are being offered to help people suffering from Parkinson's disease, epilepsy and even migraines.

A team of researchers based in France, Germany and the US conducted an experiment with 20 migraine patients.

They suggested that they listen to 20 minutes of music twice a day for three months. The result: their migraine attacks were drastically reduced.

Half of the participants in the study even declared that they had been reduced by half.

And the therapeutic benefits of music don't stop there. Numerous studies indicate that music stimulates almost all forms of memory, even in the elderly. Hervé Platel, professor of neuropsychology at the University of Caen, France, was one of the first researchers in the 1990s to observe the persistence of musical memory.

He discovered that patients with Alzheimer's disease were able to learn new songs within a few weeks, whereas their memorization capabilities were thought to have been significantly diminished.

They were even able to do so at an advanced stage of the disease.

Susan Magsamen, founder of the International Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and co-author of a forthcoming book on neuroesthetics ("Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us"), explains that this surprising phenomenon is due to the fact that music is processed by multiple areas of the brain.

"The hippocampus is the region of the brain that stores short-term memory, which is often the first region to fail for people with dementia.

Over time, memories are consolidated and are stored in a distributed manner in the cerebral cortex.

It's fascinating that somehow our brains have figured out how to duplicate knowledge, especially information that's really important," she told the Washington Post.

But can we say that music preserves the brain from aging? Researchers remain cautious on this question.

However, they are unanimous on one point: listening to music, singing or playing an instrument has multiple benefits on the overall cognitive functioning of the brain, including at all ages.

All the more reason to encourage learning and playing music from a young age.