From the drumbeats of our primal ancestors to today’s unlimited streaming services, music is an intrinsic part of the human experience. Music has the ability to make you ecstatic, happy, amused, sad, fearful or irritated. Music has also been shown to have the wonderful power to awe humans. Scientists at the Montreal Neurological Institute, for instance, have found dramatic evidence on brain scans that the “chills,” or a visceral feeling of awe, that people report listening to their favourite music are real.
Music that a person likes – but significantly not music that is disliked – activates both the higher, thinking centres in the brain’s cortex, and, perhaps more importantly our ancient circuitry, the motivation and reward system. It is this ancient part of the brain that, often through the neurotransmitter dopamine, also governs basic drives such as for food, water, and sex, suggesting the tantalising idea that the brain may consider music on a par with these crucial drives.
So where does our love of music come from and how do our preferences develop? One of the most popular theories at the moment is that mothers are responsible for our musical development. As we evolved away from our ape-like cousins, female humans started making special sounds to their babies such as lullabies and, as a result, humans gradually developed the ability to listen and respond to a variety of sounds.
According to Dr Nina Kraus, humans and songbirds are the only creatures that automatically feel the beat of a song. The human heart wants to synchronise to music, the legs want to swing, metronomically, to a beat. Quite simply, our bodies are made to be move to music and be moved by it. In another interesting study “We found that the same neural reward system is activated in female birds in the breeding state that are listening to male birdsong, and in people listening to music that they like,” says Sarah Earp, who led the research at Emory University.
There is not doubt that there is just something about music that excites and activates the body. There is a growing movement of music therapists and psychologists who are investigating the use of music in medicine to help patients dealing with pain, depression and Alzheimers disease.
Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife
― Kahlil Gibran
However, the notion of using song, sound frequencies and rhythm to reduce stress is gaining momentum. Dr Daniel J. Levity, PhD and author of the book “This is Your Brain on Music” has found compelling evidence that musical interventions can play a healthcare role in settings ranging from the operating room to the family clinic. The researchers found that listening to and playing music increase the body’s production of the antibody immunoglobulin A and boosts the immune system’s effectiveness. Music also reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Another exciting study in full melodic swing is a sleep project being conducted by the University of Sheffield to find out what people listen to when they are slipping into sleep and how it improves their sleep. They discovered the top rated composer of sleep music in their sample is Johann Sebastian Bach. He was followed by Ed Sheeran, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Brian Eno, and Coldplay. Using sophisticated computer programs they were able to pin down the consistent musical features that support sleep among these many diverse musical sounds.
And in the near future they hope to be armed with the necessary evidence that will allow us to move from this “instinctive approach” to a more informed and optimised application of music as an effective aid in the battle against insomnia.
Music, because of its ubiquity in our society as well as its ease of transmission, has perhaps the greatest potential among alternative therapies to reach people who do not otherwise have access to care. Psychology, neuroscience and medicine studies all acknowledge that music is one of the most powerful neurobiological tools we have to change our mood, mindset and behaviour. Already some online music stores tag music according to mood. It is only a matter of time before music is given a firm scientific foundation and it will be possible to search for therapeutic music according to the emotional content and and it’s ability to fundamentally change the way we interact with music, and more importantly lift our mood.
Music is a cost effective, personable and side effect free form of complementary care. Can you imagine a day when your GP will prescribe music to soothe, comfort and regulate your mood. That day is closer than you think. A music prescription for the blues……..