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“I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” --Albert Einstein
Music is everywhere. Our cars, our computers, radio, television, phones, elevators...Technology has dramatically changed the access we have to music; it’s now available to us 24/7.
Music expresses and regulates our emotions. It helps us process anger, fear, sadness, resentment or grief, even if we are not aware that we are feeling those emotions. It’s able to improve our attention or distract us. It transports us in time, and brings back special memories. How can we use music to help achieve our goals?
Music has the power to improve our health and well‑being. Feeling stressed? Listening to “relaxing” music (slow tempo, no lyrics) has been shown to calm us, reducing our stress and anxiety. Our heart syncs to the music we hear, stabilizing its rhythm. Slow music can decrease our heart rate, our breathing and our blood pressure. It can treat depression, panic attacks and other emotional challenges. It helps reduce anger, and makes us less irritable. It helps us focus, relax, fall asleep, and sleep more soundly. When we hear music we like, our brain releases dopamine, our body's “happy” chemical, and serotonin, which eases pain and helps us sleep. Singing also releases the “cuddle hormone”, oxytocin, which increases our bonding experience with others.
Music is helpful when we undergo medical procedures. In studies of patients recovering from surgery, those who listened to music before, during, or after surgery had less pain and were calmer. It gives comfort to people who are seriously ill or in hospice care by helping them communicate what they’re feeling, and cope with what’s happening to them. Listening to music helps stroke survivors keep more memory, maintain focus and be less confused.
I’m sure you’ve had the experience of hearing a song that triggers a vivid memory from your past. Instantly, you’re transported back in time to a significant moment of love, loss, joy, or pain. This phenomenon happens because music touches our brain’s neural network, where our memories are entwined with our experiences, our emotions and our creativity. It’s why studies have shown that music helps people with brain injuries recall lost memories by creating new neural pathways in their brains, like alternate routes. This neuroplasticity allows our brain to re-organize itself after injury. Gabby Giffords used this kind of music therapy to re-learn how to speak after her devastating gunshot injury. It’s also why listening to music helps people with dementia or Alzheimers recall lost memories and maintain mental abilities. Even without brain trauma music assists our brain’s neuroplasticity in finding alternate pathways to reach our memories and emotions.
Music has been shown to help autistic children improve their social responses, communication and attention by using songs as a form of communication to increase their emotional understanding. In one study, sad songs and happy songs helped the children understand the emotions based on the songs. Music succeeded where spoken language failed. We know that music stimulates our emotions. We see this when a child smiles and dances to music. We also see this when a parent bonds with his or her baby by singing a lullaby. Lullabies also impact vital signs, improve infant feeding and increase quiet times.
We put things we want to remember to music. We teach children the alphabet with song, protest songs and chants convey complex ideas succinctly, and holiday music reminds us of the holiday’s meaning. Music has great power. Advertisers figured that out years ago, setting commercials to catchy tunes. (If you’re like me, some of them are still in your head decades later.) Repetitive rhythms and melodies help our brains form patterns that improve memory. They also can get stuck in your head. The catchy, upbeat tunes with cycling pitches, unusual intervals, rhyming patterns, and simple easy to remember melodies are called “earworms”, probably from the German “ohrwurm”. Some common ones are Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”, Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face”, and one we used in Bar Revue, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”. Even classical music has earworm potential, like Ravel’s “Bolero” or Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries”. Nursery rhymes often fit this pattern, making it easy for kids to remember them. ("Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.") Studies have shown that most of us will have an earworm about once a week.
Listening to music while exercising enhances our experience, boosts both mental and physical stimulation and improves our performance. Energetic music increases our heart rate and our breathing. Same thing for listening to music at work. Music enhances events, and is used in military exercises. Ambient music plays while we shop. The use of music in movies and other entertainment is legendary for enhancing the storytelling, manipulating the viewers’ emotions, creating atmosphere, highlighting relationships between characters, setting the time and place, and many other functions. Think of what “Jaws”, “Psycho”, “Gone with the Wind”, “Star Wars”, etc., would be without music. Even the silent movies often had musical accompaniment.
Like the movies, we can learn how to use music to affect our moods, increase our focus, and gain motivation. Play music that takes you back to a positive event in your life. You’ll experience the event and the emotion again. Do this whenever you need to re-connect with a feeling. Make a playlist of songs for each emotional response you want to elicit. Improvise creating your own music, whether you play an instrument (blending your technical left brain with your artistic right), or make up your own lyrics performing karaoke. The skill of improvising improves our thinking, our spontaneity, and helps us find creative solutions to problems in our “real world” lives. Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart said that drumming strengthened his brain as he got older. Singing helps your body and your mind (even if you sing badly).
“Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life, bringing peace, abolishing strife.”
Music helps with meditation and mindfulness. Historically music has been used to help achieve inner peace, whether setting a devotional mood in religious ceremonies, enhancing oral histories, or calming us. Chanting has been used for thousands of years. Whether Gregorian or using “om”, it helps us achieve physical relaxation and a feeling of peace.
Specific music helps our brain produce different brain wave frequencies. Alpha waves are induced when we close our eyes, take slow deep breaths, and listen to soothing music. We achieve theta waves when we meditate or listen to relaxing music. Alpha waves and theta waves help us stay mindful and relaxed, and enhance our creativity and problem solving. Music that produces delta waves in our brain helps with insomnia.
What a wonderful tool for helping us achieve our goals.
“Music in the soul can be heard by the universe.” -- Lao Tzu
“If music be the food of love, play on.” -- William Shakespeare
“Music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.” -- Leonard Bernstein