In these times of great uncertainty, turmoil and mental anxiety, I hope that this article will provide an anchor in the midst of the storm.
In all cultures, across time, across mountains, rivers and plains, music has been a pillar of every society. This is a fascinating thought! Although music encompasses us all, it is still a very personal expression of personality, love, loss, faith, despair and hope.
While different types of music appeal to and excite different individuals, for some time it was believed that listening to Mozart was the answer to ‘life, the universe and everything’. Mozart created extraordinary and beautiful music but now it has come to be understood that the music you most deeply respond to, depends on the music that you grew up with. Music triggers particular parts of the brain and if you play someone their favourite piece of music, specific areas of the brain light up. This means that memories associated with that particular music are always present in the brain, no matter how many years have passed.
Music has a positive effect on the brain, but in these difficult times, we should also remind ourselves of the effect of music on the body, our mental health and even our soul/spirit. We will also briefly consider the effect of different types of music on the body in order to encourage us to listen to and play music so that we can find the balm that we all need.
Music For The Body
The NCIB website (National Centre for Biotechnology Information) lists the following bodily responses that respond positively to music:
- Blood pressure
- Heart rate
- Immune response
- Endocrine (hormone) function
- Cognitive function (the brain): memory, language and concentration
- Balance and co-ordination
- Coordination and speech recovery for stroke patients
Listening to 20-30 minutes a day of classical, Celtic or Indian Raga music may significantly lower blood pressure.
Classical music is known to lower the heart rate. Music actually makes the arteries more supple and listening relaxing music during surgery helps both the surgeon and the patient to keep calm. On the other hand, as any dance teacher will tell you, a rousing beat gets the blood pumping and the music increases the blood supply to the heart by more than 26%.
Respiration or breathing is closely connected to the rhythm of body movement. But, in the same way we move to music and ‘let ourselves go’, dance or sway, music also ‘move us’ on an emotional level. The breath is a signpost to our emotions. If we are upset or fearful, our breathing becomes quicker and more shallow, whereas when we relax, sing or dance, our breathing deepens, allowing the lungs to fill with air. This then allows the breath to connect to the parasympathetic nervous system and helps us to release tension.
Breathing is also related to performance and music teachers often give instructions on breathing to their students. Wind instrument players often have fast inhales and long exhalations, whereas piano players tend to breathe with the slurs and phrases of the piece of music. Becoming aware of the breath, no matter which instrument we play is key to the relaxation response.
Listening to and/or playing music boosts the immune system and increases the number of antibodies in the body. Inflammation levels are lower after listening to music and the pain threshold is raised. A fun experiment to try is the ‘hand in an ice bucket’ experiment. Place your hand in an ice bucket twice, the first time in silence and the second time whilst singing. Use a stopwatch to time both experiments. You should find that singing helps the body to cope better with the sting of the cold.
Endocrine (hormone) Function
‘Live music’ in particular reduces the levels of cortisol (stress hormone) in the body. When we are stressed, our cortisol levels spike, causing the ‘fight or flight’ response in the body and this has the effect of suppressing our immune and digestive systems.
When we listen to, or play music, anxiety levels are lowered and in fact, the brain releases a ‘feel-good’ hormone called Dopamine. Dopamine is the hormone responsible for making us feel pleasure or being ‘in love’.
The particular frequency 528Hz has a particular effect of allowing our cells to remove impurities and repair DNA. This frequency has a powerful effect on water and as our bodies are made up of more than 70% water, this frequency actually increases our life energy and gives us the feeling of deep peace and joy.
Cognitive Function (The Brain)
Playing a musical instrument has been connected to lowering the risk of developing dementia in later life. Furthermore, musicians overall tend to have better language abilities; and as music and maths uses the same part of the brain, music helps us to learn better, at a quicker rate and even aids memory.
Why is music taught to young children? Because it’s easier to learn your ABCs or multiplication times tables whilst singing them, rather than just merely repeating the letters or numbers.
Balance and Coordination
Playing a music instrument encourages left and right brain crossover and supports spacial awareness. Due to the emphasis on posture, core strength, focus on breathing and hand-eye coordination, the musician has a better sense of overall balance.
Coordination and speech recovery for stroke patients
As a stroke often affects the body’s ability to speak and/or move, when we hear a steady rhythm, it activates both the auditory (hearing) and the motor (muscular) systems in the body. Singing, even just using the syllables fa-la, encourages the tongue and lip muscles to move and this speeds up both physical recovery as well as the mental and emotional confidence of the stroke victim.
Music for Mental Health
Aristotle argued that the ‘power of music to restore health and to those who suffer from uncontrollable emotions’ was invaluable and compared it to a medical treatment. Plato said that music helped to educate people, 'because more than anything else rhythm and harmony find their way into the inmost soul and take strongest hold upon it.'
According to English playwright William Congreve, ‘Music has charms to soothe a savage beast’. Music therapy can ease depression and reduce pain. Music encourages the brain’s plasticity and the connection between neurons (brain cells). It helps us to connect to our inner selves and allows us to express emotions that may in other situations overwhelm us. Music also offers us a way to express these emotions in a safe and constructive environment. It can make us feel happy, or sad, angry or calm. It can stir up memories and allow us to release unwanted thoughts and tensions in a positive way.
In particular, drumming has been shown to support positive mental health.
Types of Music
John Powell, a physicist and classically trained musician has written a book called ‘Why We Love Music’ about the effect of different types of music on the brain. Different types of music are useful for different situations. Loud, rhythmic music will keep one awake during a long drive, whereas calm, relaxing music can help the body re-establish a healthy sleep pattern… great for insomniacs!
Helps angry listeners to calm down, helps depressed and suicidal people to release and process negative emotions in a healthy way.
Could make you smarter and is known to aid stroke patients in their recovery. Classical music releases endorphins (feel-good hormones).
The uptempo rhythms and beats help people to exercise more. This is why so many gyms and exercise classes use music to encourage people to get fitter and stronger.
Creates a calming effect on the body and improves mental focus, memory and mood. Improvisation encourages creativity.
- Hip hop/Rap
‘Freestyling’ encourages language and allows us to express ourselves in a healthy manner.
Encourages gentleness and calmness.
As reported by a neurologist in USA Today, the uplifting lyrics and melodies combine to cause a physiological change in the body.
This type of music is easy to dance to, tap along with or sing to. As a result, people feel better.
The lyrics of country songs are often sad, but this can help people to process difficult emotions.
- Broadway/Show songs
These songs encourage and inspire us in so many ways, from the talent of the performer to the lyrics and tempo.
Music is a universal gift and although the saying, ‘Physician, heal thyself’ stands true, perhaps we could also suggest, ‘Musician, heal thyself’.
As we have seen, music has a powerful and positive effect on the human body, mental health and the soul/spirit of both the individual and society. It doesn’t matter what type of music you are interested in, listen to, sing, dance to or play, the overall effect of music is both profound and positive.
Shakespeare exclaimed, ‘If music be the food of love, play on!’ At this difficult time of both physical and mental suffering, perhaps we should follow the advice of The Bard and find a soothing musical balm to anchor us during these stormy times.