Nature: The Magic of Music


Nature: Jean o’Connor listens up to the effect of music on our health and wellbeing.

The fact that there is a link between music and wellbeing is hardly news. To varying degrees, we can all be touched by music. Music quite clearly has the capacity to lift one’s mood, inspire, motivate or relax, but music has been shown to do a lot more than that when it comes to the functioning of the human body, from alleviating pain and reducing anxiety, to restoring brain function following injury.

All the way back to Neanderthal man there have been indications of the creation of rudimentary musical instruments used for either communication or entertainment purposes, or both. Ancient cultures all around the world have used music as a bridge between the human and the natural worlds, going so far as to induce individuals into dream and trance states through shamanic drumming or other forms of rhythmic sounds and percussion.

Surprisingly, consistent rhythmic sounds that are so representative of certain rites and rituals used in traditional cultures from Africa to Australia, the Americas to Tibet and India for healing, spiritual growth or access to higher consciousness, generally present at 4.5 beats per second. This beat pattern is in turn a door towards a low ‘theta’ state, which is the state at which the brain enters the realm of dreams, light sleep and REM.

Binaural beat therapy on the other hand, one of the many facets of using music as therapy, leads the brain into an ‘alpha’ state, a state in which feel-good hormones such as serotonin, melatonin and endorphins are optimally released. Binaural beat therapy is believed to rebalance the body by having a direct effect on the endocrine system, which in turn can lead to a state of deep relaxation that signals to the body to heal itself.

In practice, a person participating in binaural beat therapy will hear two different tones, one in each ear while using a pair of headphones. The human brain will then perceive a third tone based on the difference in frequency of the two tones being played.  A 2018 study in Psychological Research analysing 22 studies investigating the value of binaural beat therapy found that its perceived benefits were real, but that the mechanisms behind it remained a mystery.

But binaural beat therapy is just one of the many strings to the bow of music therapy. Music Therapy is a field that has become increasingly professionalised, with practitioners working in many settings, including hospitals and care homes. It has been used to treat migraines and insomnia, to manage pain and anxiety, and is already used in clinical settings to reduce stress in pre-operative situations. It has also been successfully used in the treatment of speech loss, one of many brain injury outcomes.

In fact, possibly the most fascinating area of research related to the link between music and wellness has been done on exactly this – the use of music on the improvement of neural plasticity whereby the brain is empowered to re-wire and repair around injured areas.

In the case of speech repair for example, as music is actually processed in many parts of the brain at the same time, it can be used to stimulate parts of the brain that are not traditionally used for speech and encourage those areas to replace injured areas as new centres for the processing of speech.

Music, therefore, does not just have an emotional effect on us, but an important physical one as well. This would mean that the value of music rests not only in the relationship between it and the listener, whereby its value depends on how each individual engages with it, but that it in fact has intrinsic properties that in turn have an independent effect on us.

And then there’s a whole other angle to music-induced wellness with what has come to be labelled as ‘pop psychology’. Certainly, over the past 60 years music has addressed issues of our time, whether they be socio-economic disparities, race relations, social justice issues, domestic abuse, female empowerment, gender divides – the list is endless.

Recently, however, there has been a move towards songs that address very personal issues such as mental health struggles, anxiety attacks, depression, living with disease, bullying, lack of self-confidence and body issues, to name just a few. Today more than ever, adolescents have access to vast catalogues of music that just by their lyrics can have a lasting positive effect on their adult lives.

So, from psychologist to healer, pep talker to meditation guru, physiotherapist to neurosurgeon, music may be one of those human inventions that we take for granted as part of the fabric of who we are as a world, and yet where would we be without it…

Find out more about Music Therapy on wikipedia
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