Music therapy—Part 2

Phil Maffetone

As a follow-up to Part 1, there is another brain injury I want to discuss that involves singing and talking.

Talking seems simple enough. The brain enlists many areas like memory, emotion and rhythm, and the motor cortex, which sends messages to some 100 muscles in the face and neck, muscles in the jaw, the lips, tongue, larynx, and of course the muscular vocal cords, to prepare for the action of contraction and relaxation.

This mechanism is not unlike playing 10 keys on the piano at one time—the brain sends messages to the finger muscles to strikes certain keys, and the appropriate sound is made. But if one key is off, usually the fault of the brain, it doesn’t sound good.

Human music was first made by singing. It triggered the development of our complex brain, and eventually, formed language (which took millions of years).

Singing is even more complex. Compared to talking, much more of the brain is enlisted because we need more neuromuscular actions for greater ranges of pitch and rhythm, how high and low we sing certain notes, and the pace of the song. (That is, unless we’re speaking in a language like Mandarin, where each syllable has a different pitch, the reason it’s so musical.)

Singing moves more muscles, requiring increased brain activity. Not just more lips and tongue, and larynx muscles, but those that make the whole body more more. We become more animated. Some people do this when talking—a wide variation of pitch and rhythm with more body movement, most likely because their brains were exposed to it early in life, typically through music. Others, however, are more monotonic, and some even more extreme, sounding robotic. In this case, the brain does not express pitch and rhythm well, reducing emotion, and humor, with the real potential for impairing communication. These individuals were probably not exposed to the talking and musical variations early in life. Or, it could be due to a brain injury, with the more obvious examples being a condition called aprosodia, which can occur after a head trauma, stroke or in neurological diseases like Parkinson’s.

Mild forms of aprosodia can be recognized in many people, some worse than others, and can significantly affect communication and other social skills.  causes stuttering, much can be done to address the problem. For example, adding more musical sense of rhythm and pitch variation to a sentence can often eliminate a stutter. Likewise, “singing” our conversations may help us overcome aprosodia-like symptoms to help with better communication, especially in portraying emotion, emphasis and humor. Likewise, for those who stutter; Using variations in pitch and rhythms when talking, closer to singing the sentences, often reduces or eliminates it.

Easier said than done, and, like music, practice is key to improving the brain and muscles that provide the opportunity to talk with more alterations in pitch and rhythm, improved social skills and better communication.

It’s easy to sing in the car or shower, and even better when we add a variety in songs with different pitch and rhythm. Still better is grabbing that old guitar from the closet, sit at the piano, or play your favorite albums and sing. You may have to plan which songs to sing so you can reach all the notes—find the songs or keys best for your voice. (Or sing harmony.)

The brain areas that trigger the singing mechanism, like talking, are active even before we make a sound. Just listening to others talk can activate the same brain areas in us. Much more brain activity is stimulated when we listen to music with varying pitch—it’s why a great melody is so powerful. Think, somewhere over the rainbow, way up high. Most of you were silently singing along, and your brain began stimulating the muscles that make the sounds of the song.

More thoughts…

Music & Medicine

Why are there so many health practitioners and students associated with various aspects of music? While music’s impact on individuals is clear, its effects on the art of practitioners is also evident. Music effects the activities and performance of health practitioners, going beyond your dentist, massage therapist or the playing of music in other healthcare offices. Knowing music can significantly affect pain, anxiety, cognition, and even patient satisfaction, many major medical environments use it during out-patient hospital testing and therapies, intensive care units, psychiatric wards, nursing facilities and operating rooms. Patients are often given the option to choose the specific music ahead of time.

While an unusually high number of health practitioners attend musical performances, many are also serious musicians who play classical to rock, playing in orchestras, bands and other groups. There are many orchestras composed entirely of doctors and medical students around the world. (This is generally not the case with attorneys, engineers, computer scientists, bankers or other professions.) Several medical schools have also started courses that use music to shape future physicians' listening skills.

It’s certainly possible that musicians majoring in medicine and other healthcare careers developed more intellect in the arts through exposure to music early in life. This connection between music and the brain is long supported by science, yet educational budget cuts more often eliminate music from schools while maintaining potentially brain-injuring sports like football and other sports associated with hard contact.

Live Music may be More Therapeutic

Recent studies have also investigated the benefit of live music performance versus recorded as a therapeutic tool, concluding that there is a special quality to live performance that conveys benefit to the listeners of all ages. Our more potent memories of music past are typically that of live shows.

Live music is alive, front and center for the brain and body. In addition to hearing music close up, the visual aspect of performance adds another important sensory input to the brain, much like watching a music video, but more powerful. Also, our sense of the musician’s intensity and passion is clearly felt as well. Humanity has benefited from live music for millions of years, with recorded sounds important but playing second seat. Whether an intimate evening of a single singer-songwriter performing, or a large stage of musicians, concerts may be the best way to not only enjoy but benefit from music.