From the first time we stretch our tiny fingers across the ivories, to the last symphony we hear before our world goes quiet, music’s presence in our lives is often a welcome one. Sure, learning the piano may a labor of love, and the thumping brass recordings of our favorite marches may not ring as clear as they used to, but we should find comfort in knowing that the benefits of listening to, and being surrounded by, music will last us our entire lives. From before we ever enter the world until our brains begin to erode into illness, here are six ways music inspires, enriches, uplifts, and empowers us.

1. Headphones On A Pregnant Belly

Before our ears ever catch wind of the nocturnal car alarm or the rumbling morning garbage truck, we’re exposed to a complex mosaic of sounds and memories while still inside our mother’s womb — at least that's why scientists currently believe. Such a belief inspired a group of researchers from the Institute of Behavioral Sciences at the University of Helsinki to test whether newborns’ auditory health could benefit from listening to music while still in utero.

The study, published in PLOS ONE, recruited 24 expecting mothers, split evenly, either to listen to a CD five times per week from week 29 of gestation until birth, or proceed with their pregnancy as they normally would. On average, women in the experimental group played songs on the CD, such as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” between 46 and 64 times.

Four months after the children were born, the team found that babies exposed to the music were better at recognizing the music, as measured by event-related potentials (ERPs) in their brain. These ERPs are standard indicators for when a person’s brain is responding to stimuli — the greater the ERP, the more the brain is responding, the team noted.

“Furthermore, the ERP amplitudes to the changed and unchanged notes at birth were correlated with the amount of prenatal exposure,” they wrote. “Our results show that extensive prenatal exposure to a melody induces neural representations that last for several months.”

2. Playing The Piano Leads To Big Business

While beefing up a baby’s auditory system is important, many parents try to involve their children in activities to foster lifelong disciplines. According to a recent study published in SAGE Journals, practicing music and learning arts and crafts can have massively beneficial effects once a child matures and begins pursuing professional endeavors.

Michigan State University researchers collected data on college students who graduated with honors between 1990 and 1995 and found an overwhelming proportion of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) grads had practiced music during childhood. A full 93 percent, in fact, said they had picked up, plucked, percussed, or otherwise played an instrument when they were younger.

“If you started as a young child and continued in your adult years, you’re more likely to be an inventor as measured by the number of patents generated, businesses formed, or articles published,” Rex LaMore, director of the Center for Community and Economic Development at the University, said in a statement, “And that was something we were surprised to discover.”

Adults who had successful careers as business owners, entrepreneurs, and in various STEM fields were eight times more likely to be involved with the arts — from craft projects to amateur forms of architecture — than the rest of the population. Along with their artistic pursuits, music facilitated their ability to construct and deconstruct individual notes and measures — to tinker with sound as if it, too, were a sort of architecture.

Eileen Roraback, of the University’s Center for Integrative Studies in the Arts and Humanities, said it was this very process of creation and deletion that allows the creative mind to see complex problems later in life according to the same rubric as, say, building a LEGO tower. “The skills you learn from taking things apart and putting them back together translate into how you look at a product and how it can be improved,” she said.

3. Can You Keep A Beat?

This deconstruction, as Roraback suggests, may even apply to the minute syllables and rhythms of a language, as a study from Northwestern University now suggests a child’s ability to keep time to a certain piece of music correlates highly with his or her ability to read.

Over 100 teenagers comprised researchers Adam Tierney’s and Nina Kraus’ experiment at the University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory. The teens were asked to tap their fingers in rhythm with a prescribed beat, while Tierney and Kraus recorded their accuracy via metronome. "It turns out that kids who are poor readers have a lot of difficulty doing this motor task and following the beat,” Kraus told the BBC, adding that “it seems that the same ingredients that are important for reading are strengthened with musical experience.”

Echoing the University of Helsinki newborn study, Kraus noted that people with strong music backgrounds tend to have highly consistent auditory-neural responses. The part of the brain responsible for auditory processing is simply more attuned to a spectrum of sounds that crash into the ear drum. Indeed, these sounds get processed fundamentally different in the brain than among non-musicians. When measuring subjects’ brain waves as they were exposed to sound waves, the team found more musically inclined subjects matched their waves nearly in full.

“Musicians have highly consistent auditory-neural responses,” she told the BBC. “In both speech and music, rhythm provides a temporal map with signposts to the most likely locations of meaningful input. You can even take the recorded brainwave and play it back through your speaker and it will sound like the sound wave.”

4. The Agile Brain Plays

Cognitively, those music lessons Roraback and LaMore champion will work overtime long after we’ve retired. And to a music teacher’s inevitable chagrin, these childhood lessons persist long into adulthood even if we don’t pick up an instrument for several decades. Again, the research comes out of Northwestern University, in a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

This time, Kraus and her colleagues recruited 44 healthy adults between the ages of 55 and 76. They had each subject listen to a synthesized speech syllable — “da” — and subsequently recorded each person’s brain activity and response time. When former childhood disciples (or depending on your experience, victims) of music displayed greater neural activity, this suggested to Kraus that it was a vestige of music lessons keeping the brain active.

"This study suggests the importance of music education for children today and for healthy aging decades from now," Kraus said in a statement. "The fact that musical training in childhood affected the timing of the response to speech in older adults in our study is especially telling because neural timing is the first to go in the aging adult.”

Kraus pointed specifically to neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, which is thought to arise from batches of misfolded proteins, known as amyloid plaques, that disrupt neural connectivity and make cognitive processing more difficult, or even impossible.

“The brain is very sensitive to timing and a millisecond compounded over millions of neurons can make a real difference in the lives of older adults," explained Dr. Michael Kilgard, University of Texas at Dallas sound researcher, who was not involved in the study. "These findings confirm that the investments that we make in our brains early in life continue to pay dividends years later.”

5. Music Multitasking And Staying Young

Although the practice is used most frequently with children, Jacques-Dalcroze eurhythmics — a series of exercises designed to coordinate a person’s physical movements through space with the rhythm of musical improvisation — is now being used among the elderly to improve cognitive function and reduce anxiety. The latest study is published in the journal Age and Ageing.

A group of 134 men and women, averaging 75 years, were split among two groups: 66 participated in weekly sessions of eurhythmics for 25 weeks — e.g. multitasking with percussion instruments while walking to a piano’s rhythm — while the rest of the subjects lived their normal lives. At the end of six months, tests of brain power and emotional stability revealed the eurythmic group as the decisive victor.

"The take-home message is that six months of music-based multitask training — a specific training regimen which was previously shown to be effective in improving gait and reducing falls — has beneficial effects on cognition and mood in older adults," Dr. Mélany Hars, of Geneva University Hospitals, told Reuters Health.

Hars noted that the combination of physical and musical (i.e. cognitive) demands, all but forces the brain to sink into an anxiety-free state of play. Thinking becomes abstract, and rhythm naturally slides into focus. "This may have implications for everyday life function," she explained.

6. Julie Andrews And Alzheimer’s

You don’t need to yodel in the Alps — only parrot the tunes sung there — to reap singing’s dementia-resistant benefits. According to research from George Mason University, moderate to severe dementia sufferers who roused their vocal chords with the sounds of show tunes, such as those from The Wizard of Oz, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music, radically improved their cognitive function in as little as four months.

Study author and University neuroscientist Jane Flinn told The Guardian that the study reinforces mental illness as elastic, and at least partially treatable. “Even when people are in the fairly advanced stages of dementia, when it is so advanced they are in a secure ward, singing sessions were still helpful,” she explained. “The message is: don’t give up on these people. You need to be doing things that engage them, and singing is cheap, easy, and engaging.”

Flinn speculated that the mechanism of memory retrieval is what’s behind the improvements. “A lot of people have grown up singing songs and for a long time the memories are still there,” she noted. “When they start singing it can revive those memories.”

There's a wealth of science behind the idea that the act of singing can benefit well-being. In groups, singing synchronizes people’s muscular movements, neural activities, and heartbeats, much in the same way yoga and meditation produce calming effects. Among dementia patients, the seemingly latent musicality can bubble up and allow patients to experience music in ways they didn’t know they could.

“Even when many memories are hard to retrieve, music can sometimes still be recalled,” a spokesperson from the U.K. Alzheimer’s Society told The Guardian. “The sessions help people with dementia communicate, improving their mood and leaving them feeling good about themselves.”