There are many mindfulness practices to stimulate inner awareness, increase health, and elevate our mood. Now we can add to that list practices such as listening to Mozart with your full being while sipping tea, singing a pop-song out loud while you drive across town, or losing your body to ecstatic dancing. Scientific research of the health benefits of music shows us the ways that music has a physiological effect on our bodies and can improve concentration, relieve stress, act as an antidepressant and more.
Music’s beneficial effects on mental health have been known for thousands of years. Ancient philosophers from Plato to Confucius sang the praises of music and used it to help soothe stress. Military bands use music to build confidence and courage. Sporting events provide music to rouse enthusiasm. Schoolchildren use music to memorize their ABCs. Shopping malls play music to entice consumers and keep them in the store. Dentists play music to help calm nervous patients.
Take a moment and listen to Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues and you will be transported to another time. Sing along with her and you may ooze with the feelings as if they are your own. Crank up Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and you will be filled with emotions you may have never known existed. This capacity to feel is core to having compassion, yet music also has a profound effect on cognitive processes and learning also.
Musical entrainment creates connection both internally and externally which can be seen when watching a whole crowd dance to a live band, or the people around you sobbing at an opera. Science explains this as an aspect of mirror neurons, which are a form of mimicking that can happen emotionally and physically. Maybe a song will give you chills, make you cry, or spontaneously start jamming on an air guitar, or dancing uncontrollably. In the study, The Neuroscience of Music, published by the Department of Psychology at McGill University, Montreal, researchers found preliminary scientific evidence supporting claims that music influences health through neurochemical changes in four domains: reward, motivation and pleasure; stress and arousal; immunity; and social affiliation.
The potential therapeutic effects of music listening have been largely attributed to its ability to reduce stress and modulate arousal levels. Listening to ‘relaxing music’ (generally considered to have slow tempo, low pitch, and no lyrics) has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety in healthy subjects, patients undergoing invasive medical procedures (e.g., surgery, colonoscopy, dental procedures, pediatric patients undergoing medical procedures, and patients with coronary heart disease.
Music: Sound Medicine for ADHD
“Nothing activates the brain so extensively as music,” says Oliver Sacks, M.D., professor of neurology at Columbia University and author of Musicophilia. He should know. Sacks has documented the power of music to arouse movement in paralyzed Parkinson’s patients, to calm the tics of Tourette syndrome, and to vault the neural breaches of autism. His belief that music can heal the brain is gaining favor, thanks, in part, to Gabrielle Giffords.
ADHD children can use music to train their brains for stronger focus and self-control in the classroom and at home.
In January 2011, the Arizona congresswoman survived a gunshot wound to her left temple. Because language is controlled by the brain’s left hemisphere, Giffords was unable to speak. As part of her arduous recovery, she worked with a music therapist, who trained her to engage the right side of her brain — pairing words with melody and rhythm — to bring back speech.
“She was able to sing a word before she could speak a word, and the damaged areas of her brain were circumvented through music,” says
Concetta Tomaino, executive director of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function. “Now the neuroscience community is saying, ‘Yes, the brain changes’ and ‘Yes, auditory stimulation can help those changes happen.'”