By Tamra Klaty
The Healing Power of Music
You’ve probably seen those videos of an elderly person, perhaps in a nursing home, exhibiting some agitation or sadness. Then someone starts playing a song from their youth. Their face relaxes and they become quiet, slightly leaning forward as if to hear the melody better. Then they start swaying as a smile spreads across their face. Even people in the midst of dementia will remember words to a song they love but haven’t heard in many, many years.
That is the power of music, and its transforming effects touch us all, no matter our culture or age.
Parents and teachers witness the power of music countless times while caring for children. Ordering a child to pick up their toys will often evoke a natural negative response. The child may cross their arms, run away, or perhaps even belt out a defiant “No!” But turn it into a song and suddenly it’s a game! It might be a teacher needing to change the mood in a classroom or an exhausted mother trying to make dinner while young ones whine for attention. Turn on some music and it’s as if the atmosphere itself is lifted, bringing everyone’s disposition with it.
Music can calm nerves, lighten a heavy mood, help your baby sleep or provide a much needed pick-me-up in the late afternoon. Maybe you’ve sang happily at the top of your lungs in the car, fell deeper in love as you swayed in someone’s arms, or cried your eyes out repeatedly listening to the same song for the thousandth time.
But as much as music affects our emotions, it sparks changes at a much deeper level. Heart rate, blood pressure and stress are all benefitted when we listen to music we love. My eldest daughter, who works with brain injured adults, accompanies many of her patients to music therapy. It’s not just for fun, although music therapy is enjoyable.
All those sound waves enter the ear canal and vibrate the ear drum, but inside our brains, chemical neurotransmitters are activated as different parts interpret melody and rhythm. When all is said and done, it’s as if their minds and brains and hearts all have had a workout that end up improving things like memory, cognitive performance and cardiovascular function.
It seems strange to include memory skills to the long list of health benefits of music. We can struggle to memorize something, tripping over words and repeatedly going blank, no matter how hard we try. But put those words to music? The rhythm and structure cue the recollection of words that are much more easily retained and recalled. How often have you forgotten something current, like keeping an appointment or switching the crockpot on, but have no trouble singing along to every word of a song you loved in high school!
So maybe you’ve experienced how music can help memory, but cardiovascular function still seems like a stretch. While reading about music and health, I came across an article written on the Harvard Medical School website. It mentioned a study of 45 patients who had suffered heart attacks within the previous 72 hours. All the patients were clinically stable and in an intensive care unit. The subjects were randomly assigned to either continue with routine care or listen to classical music. All were closely monitored during the 20-minute trial and the outcome was astonishing. Almost immediately after the music began, the patients who were listening showed a drop in their heart rates, breathing rates and their hearts’ oxygen demands.
As if that wasn’t amazing enough, the cardiovascular improvements linked to music lasted for at least an hour after the music stopped. Psychological testing also demonstrated lower levels of anxiety. Other studies show that music produced benefits similar to exercise or statin therapy, and even better results than laughter or relaxation!
If music can affect our heart health, mind function, healing abilities and emotional wellbeing, it is important to note a factor that is crucial to experiencing these benefits: the music selections must be songs we truly enjoy. All too often, we choose music based on what we believe will make us appear more hip or interesting and not necessarily what we actually prefer.
Hunter S. Thompson said, “Music has always been a matter of Energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel. I have always needed Fuel. I am a serious consumer. On some nights I still believe that a car with the gas needle on empty can run about fifty more miles if you have the right music very loud on the radio.”
Debasish Mridha wrote, “Music can heal the wounds which medicine cannot touch.”
The power of music is immeasurable, and yet only as strong as our enjoyment of it.