We often turn to music as a source of entertainment, amusement, or distraction. Ambient music streams in the background of supermarkets, book shops, restaurants, the local gym, and the dentist’s office. How empty our everyday lives would seem without the sound of music. And yet, it is accomplishing more in our brains and hearts than we often recognize.

Ways Music Can Benefit You

Music Invites Us to Engage Internally and Externally, Healing Us from the Inside Out

Often, when you hear music that you like, it makes you want to get up and dance or tap your feet and your fingers. Research shows that music responsiveness begins in the womb. Babies are brought into the world with an innate capacity to detect the beat that will continue throughout their lifespan.

Music also impacts us at a biological level. Internally, it can affect blood pressure, heart rate, and hormones. Externally, it can give us goosebumps or bring us to tears. It has the extraordinary capacity to allow us to remember things that have happened in the past, evoking powerful emotions and stimulating memories.

Neurologically, music activates a reward center in the brain that is also a reward center for other activities such as eating chocolate or having a good workout. But music does more than make you feel good. It also activates regions in the front part of the cortex that are also activated when you perform cooperative, altruistic acts, (i.e., putting someone else’s welfare before your own with some degree of personal sacrifice).

Music prompts the release of Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays several important roles in the brain and the body. Dopamine is associated with motivation, attention, movement, and addiction. Dopamine is released at times when we listen empathically to another human being and understand another’s feelings.

Additionally, Oxytocin, which is associated with pleasure, love, bonding, empathy, trust, and relationship building, is also released in the brain when people sing together. Through years of research, we have come to believe that music is the social glue that enhances our sense of well-being.

Music Encourages Creativity in Us & Connectedness with Each Other

The brain is like a battery. The right side charges it and the left side uses the energy and empties it. The goal is to always keep our mental battery charged up. However, we live in a world with more and more information to process and analyze. We spend more time talking to boxes and screens than we do with each other. It is becoming fundamentally important to nurture the human attributes that set us apart from machines, such as love, compassion, kindness, and determination.

When we sing, the neurotransmitters in our brain connect in new and diverse ways, firing up the right temporal lobe of our brain and releasing endorphins that make us smarter, healthier, happier, and more creative. Interestingly, it has been discovered that when we sing together, our hearts start beating together. Recently, some futurists have said, “Creativity has become the most endangered species in the 21st century.” With music, creativity is unleashed and sustained.

Music Therapy Provides Brain-based Treatment for Brain-based Disorders

Music has proven to be a highly effective treatment for autistic children they will respond to some cues over others. There is a structure in the brain called the arcuate fasciculus. In the brain of non-verbal young children with autism, this area of the brain is thicker on the right side than on the left.

The right hemisphere is dominant for melody while the left hemisphere is dominant for speech. Music is beneficial for learning the distinction of sounds and their meaning. It jumpstarts the speech and language development in autistic children.

When we look at the areas of the brain that are active when we process language or music, there are some areas of overlap. Nonetheless, there are also clear differences; language is processed on the left side of the brain in the left hemisphere whereas music operates on the right side of the brain, namely the limbic system.

For people who have had strokes, music is effective in repairing the neural networks that have been damaged, helping them to regain their use of language. Interestingly, it helps to regain motor control for people who have been impacted by a stroke as they learn to walk again in cadence to music.

Music helps us to relax and therefore decrease the release of the stress hormone, cortisol, in our system. For example, music helps people who are preparing for surgery because a beating, thumping stressed heart is difficult to overcome with anesthesia. Consequently, people who come into the relaxation response through music require less anesthesia and less pain medication.

Several years ago, I had surgery on my wrist. Just before the anesthesia was administered, my doctor played a recording of the Hallelujah Chorus for me. It seems strange to remember having surgery as a joyful time, but it’s true.

Music is also helpful to induce the relaxation response for women who are preparing to give birth, for spouses who are buckling under the pressure of caregiving, and for people who have been diagnosed with cancer. We can use music clinically to help people do their best physically.

Music can unlock memories in those who are affected by Alzheimer’s, aid in the treatment of autism, and improve motor performance in patients who have suffered a stroke or brain injury, or Parkinson’s disease. Music is an effective therapy as well as an important part of education. Music binds us in a way that language seldom does, transcending the social barriers of fears, concerns, worries, and cultural differences, resulting in a more cooperative society and connected world.

Music Can Help You to Heal from Trauma

An adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse found healing in playing the piano. As she was able to play the music to express her emotions, suicide attempts were no longer an option. When we are the ones who are making the music, we can make strategic changes to how we are playing to match how we are feeling at any given moment.

We can target the heart of our pain and our trauma. Because trauma blocks our ability to think and understand what is happening to us, it drastically diminishes our ability to be in our lives in a meaningful way. When music is applied to our lives with intentionality it can allow us to live our lives with meaning and to understand our trauma story.

Music helps to give us the strength and control to move forward in our lives and leave our pain behind. Making sense of pain with music so that the pain is no longer a measure of worthlessness but a measure of our humanness. You don’t have to endure a life of suffering. You can be alive and thriving with music with you always.

The Role Can Music Play in the Relationship Between Client and Therapist

The rigors of modern science and the changing currents in health care require that we (therapists) give efficacious practices. That we can bring valid and reliable treatment to people in their time of need. A magical by-product of music is that it does serve as a form of entertainment for us, however, the primary function of music in healing the brain and the heart is to create neural changes that result in functional outcomes to address stress, pain, fear, speech, language cognition and movement.

Please pause in your day to listen to this beautiful song. Your brain and your heart will thank you for it.

How Can I Keep from Singing?

My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet though far off hymn
That hails a new creation
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing
It finds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing?

What though my joys and comforts die
The Lord my Savior liveth
What though the darkness gather round
Songs in the night He giveth
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging
Since Christ is Lord of Heav’n and earth
How can I keep from singing?

I lift mine eyes the cloud grows thin
I see the blue above it
And day by day this pathway smoothes
Since first I learned to love it
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart
A fountain ever springing
All things are mine since I am His
How can I keep from singing?

This article was written as a compilation of excerpts from various lectures and TED talks presented by the following neuroscientists and music therapists:

Neuroscientist and musician, Alan Harvey – TED xPerth

Certified Musical Therapist, Karla Hawley – Trauma and Music Therapy: Let the Healing Begin

Tania de Jong, founder of Creativity Australia, Creative Universe, and With One Voice – How singing together changes the brain

Speech, Language, and Music Therapist, Kathleen M. Howland – How music can heal our brain and heart

Photos:
“Concert Crowd”, Courtesy of Hannah Busing, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Guitarist”, Courtesy of Mariana Vusiatytska, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Encouraging Young Talent”, Courtesy of Paige Cody, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Moved”, Courtesy of Cason Asher, Unsplash.com, CC0 License

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