Rescue Me!

The brain-body benefits of music therapy. Part 1

Phil Maffetone

Music can improve muscles, immunity, the mind, and virtually everything in between. But beware of the pitfalls that include propaganda, and mind-altered shopping. Moreover, brain injuries—a spectrum of amusia—affect many of us, making music therapy more difficult to obtain.

If music be the food of love, play on.” Shakespeare 

We know that food and sex stimulate the mind and body, and music does it just as well. The effects of listening or participating in music occur in feel-good chemicals including dopamine, endorphins, and endocannabanoids—in the parts of our brain that also bring us a very big pleasing response. Writing in the medical journal Frontiers of Psychology, Leubner and Hinterberger state that, “Music therapy often comes into play when other forms of treatment are not effective enough or fail completely.”

Humans had music from the beginning, and its been part of virtually all cultures up to the most advanced. Likewise, throughout an individual's lifespan too, as the Harvard Health Publishing (Music and Health, July 2011) newsletter states: “In tune or not, we humans sing and hum; in time or not, we clap and sway; in step or not, we dance and bounce.” And, “The human brain and nervous system are hard-wired to distinguish music from noise and to respond to rhythm and repetition, tones and tunes.

While music has always had an intrinsic therapeutic response, things are changing.

Modern music has been bastardized, sterilized so its natural therapeutic benefits are pushed aside or eliminated. The dopamine response is displaced by displeasure. The snippets of songs we hear most today are those annoying online buzzing’s of ads, mall music and what used to be referred to as elevator music (we still have that, too). While popular, to the musical brain most have, it’s painful. We may not speak enough of the displeasure because, being almost everywhere, we appear used to it. But to the brain, it’s still front and center.

This bad music is like junk food, and it should be eliminated as much as possible, and replaced by the music we love.

The reason we listen to music is because we love it. Music makes our mind a better place. And that has profound therapeutic effect, although we should not have to wait for a symptom to get music therapy.

If we don’t love music, it poses a problem because we lose that natural therapy and an easy source of daily joy. Sometimes this is because we have not found the kind of music we love, but more often it’s due to a distaste for music, typically due to some type of brain injury, often a “software” problem that can be remedied with retraining. Traditionally, amusia is a more serious disorder of processing music-related pitch, emotion, memory and recognition. Being “tone deaf” is an example. It’s best seen as a spectrum with more mild symptoms in many people, and with the ability to correct the problem. Here are three examples:

-       That muscles work well with music is illustrated in rhythm. Whether toe-tapping, head bobbing, or dancing, music makes the brain move the body. Some people, however, have a cerebellum impairment, where rhythm originates, rendering them less able to keep a beat. Retraining the brain can be accomplished by marching to the beat of a metronome, which makes an audible beat set to a certain tempo. Marching to a beat seems easy enough, but those with this type of brain dysfunction can’t do it easily, or not at all. A free phone app, or a small hand-held metronome, is all you need. Set the tempo to a comfortable beat, such as 80 or more beats per minute, and start marching—or walking or running—in step to the beats. Try it at home first, then incorporate it in your workout for added benefit [LINK]. As you warm up and move faster, increase the tempo, maybe to 100 or more. If it seems difficult at first, it could quickly get easier. After a few sessions, it should be much easier. If it’s not, start with slower walking with less beats per minute. Some people only need a week or two, others more, before the full workout, from slow beats to fast then slow again, is automatic. Maintaining the rhythmic ability is easy if you listen to music regularly.

-       Some people not able to hear all, or any, words sung in songs. Most music is produced so the lyrics are easily understood, and most people can. This problem may not seem significant, but it may indicate other brain areas are not as functional. The remedy may be relatively simple. Find the lyrics of a song (easy to do online), and read them to yourself—reading along while listening to the song. Do this two or three times, then use other songs, and over a period of a few days. After a week or so, test yourself by listening to a song without the lyrics. Usually, it’s possible to begin hearing lyrics more clearly, and if it’s not working yet continue the treatment. (This can help other areas of the brain work better too, as the therapy brings more blood, with oxygen and other nutrients, into the brain.)

-       Normally, listening to music can change our state of consciousness to produce alpha waves, which are relaxing, dreamy, and, literally, therapeutic because they reduce stress hormones, improve blood sugar, even balance muscles. It not only brings joy and a better mood, but a better brain. Some people, however, don’t respond this way to music. The cause may be from impaired neck muscles, some of which are vital to brain function. It may be due to an old injury, like a whiplash, or other chronic problem, impairing the brain’s ability to make adequate, or any, therapeutic alpha waves. Correcting the problem can restore alpha wave production. This usually means finding a practitioner who can determine which muscles are at fault and provide a therapy to correct them, with various forms of biofeedback working well.

The Best Music

It’s important to listen to the music you like—classical, rock, rap, folk, jazz. It’s also important to experiment. In addition to hearing music we’re familiar with, listening to new sounds can be very valuable—the brain loves new things, and we may find more favorites.

Listening to the music we loved in our youth can be particularly enjoyable, and powerfully therapeutic. Even those with memory loss respond to these songs, turning on the brains of those with Alzheimer’s disease and other serious conditions of cognitive impairment. Working with Alzheimer’s patients, Neurologist Dr. Oliver Sachs says “Music imprints itself on the brain deeper than any other human experience. Music brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can.”

As studies show, when music stimulates the brain, the body responds too. It can help reduce pain, depression, and anxiety, improve cardiovascular health, support sleep, stabilize balance and gait, help hormones and immunity, and PTSD and self-esteem. Hospitalized patients, and those getting surgery or other therapies, benefit too.

Not just listening, but playing music may be even more powerful. Dancing to it too, and watching music videos. One large study showed that people who attended concerts obtained additional benefits.

“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” –Albert Einstein

Why We Love Certain Songs

Why do we listen to the same songs over and over? First, it’s because we love them, they make us feel good. We often imagine hearing them over and over, or sometimes, out of the blue, we find ourselves humming or singing a song we had not heard for years, realizing we love that song. And, when hearing that actual song again, we may hear more of it than we remember—notes, lyrics or other musical components we didn’t realize were there before. This process is a huge reward for the brain. It’s why we listen to the Beatles, Bob Dylan or Bach many times over. Even though we’ve heard the songs hundreds of times, there’s still something new about them.

Listening works best through good speakers, headphones or earbuds; this is when we might hear something previously unheard—even after hundreds or thousands of listens. The more music we hear, new and old, the better our brains work, as one area of increased brain activity circulates more blood to potentially help other areas.

Another reason we listen to songs over and over is because they bring up memories. Hearing songs from certain times in our lives is powerful, they make us revisit the good times. Hearing the songs from the summer of love, or coming of age, or those fun college days—they not only make us feel good, they literally make us physiologically younger, as studies have shown.

There’s also something psychologically, and socially, associated with many songs. Most songwriters are not the normal 9-5 corporate workers, but are rebels at heart; non-conformists who break the rules in a healthy way that many others want to break but don’t. This is typical of true songwriting (as opposed to phony industry-written songs). As a result, the feeling a song can evoke can lead people to let go of norms and traditions that may not be healthy, to uncover that “other” person in the subconscious mind, and release creative thinking and an amazing feeling of freedom—a better brain. Literally, music makes our mind a better place. (Harvard’s Francesca Gino writes about this in her new book, “Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules in Work and Life.”)

Sour Notes

While music’s influence on cognition, behavior, and creativity is long known, so is music’s

power in movies, stores and malls, relaxing shoppers by temporarily taking them away from the stress of life. It’s a powerful mind-altering effect. Music has also been used to rally waring troops in a nationalistic way. Advertisers have long paid attention to this use with great success, motivating people to buy. The creation of well-crafted jingles—even those we don’t like—steer us, like zombies, to spend money under its influence. The use of snippets of popular songs are used too, very successfully. (If I get under that influence, I remedy it my thinking of a 1970 Paul McCartney song: “Buy buy says the sign in the shop window, why why says the junk in the yard.” I am my brain on music.)

Music moves us, is good for memory, motor skills and much more. It brings happiness, reduces physiological age, alters our mood, changes our mind. Ask your doctor is music is right for you.