Emerging research supports what many ancient cultures have known all along
Music is an integral part of the daily lives of most North Americans. Whether we’re singing in the shower or exercising to the beat of our favourite tune, music is often what gets us through the day.
But what if music was also the key to unlocking better health and well-being? Researchers continue to explore these questions, and the results may just be music to your ears.
Your brain on music
The human brain is an amazingly complex organ that recognizes music as entirely distinct from other noise. Your body’s interpretation of music begins as sound waves enter the ear and vibrate the eardrum. This mechanical signal is converted to electrical impulses in the inner ear and then picked up by the auditory nerve.
The nerve road map leads first to the temporal lobes, which sit above each ear. From the temporal lobes, the nerve impulses are transmitted widely to other parts of the brain. For example, the cerebellum processes rhythm, while the frontal lobes mediate the emotional content of the sound. When you listen to thrilling spine-tingling music, the brain’s reward system lights up, just as it does with sex or a great meal.
The healing power of music
Since the beginning of recorded history, humans have sought out music when we contemplate, celebrate, grieve, relax or simply need to sharpen our mental acuity. It even helps regulate our emotions and we’re increasingly learning it does so much more.
The ancient Greeks recognized this and believed that music and medicine were linked, and many Indigenous Peoples have used singing and chanting in healing rituals for centuries. Today, Western medicine is rediscovering the innate healing powers of music. Music therapy is a fledgling field, but one that’s rapidly growing in North America. Capilano University, in North Vancouver, currently boasts one of Canada’s five degree-granting programs in the field of music therapy.
The research into music therapy is highly promising. Music has been shown to be effective at easing depression, anxiety and pain. It can lower blood pressure and pulse rates in patients recovering from heart attacks. It’s also been shown to improve spontaneous movement of patients with Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders.
A Swedish study shows a mortality benefit to those who regularly attend cultural events such as concerts. Other studies suggest that music may defend against dementia development. Think of a favourite song from your childhood and it likely brings back happy memories. You instantly smile; and dementia patients can actually access positive emotions which help foster better emotional well-being.
One of the most exciting ways that music may improve our health, is by enhancing neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to adapt to change and injury throughout life.
Music has been shown to increase the number and complexity of neural connections throughout the brain. The more connections and pathways the brain has, the better able it is to compensate for injured regions and promote self-healing.
An example of this phenomenon is US Representative Gabby Giffords, who suffered a gunshot injury to the speech centre in her brain. Using music to naturally promote neuroplasticity, she was able to partially recover her speech by first singing her thoughts and then gradually dropping the melody.
While further research is required, the general consensus in the scientific community today jives with what the ancient Greeks simply accepted as truth: music is good for us.
Music is unquestionably a valuable tool for enhancing our emotional well-being and enriching our lives. It connects us, moves us and forms the auditory landscape of our social interactions. When you’re listening to your favourite song, time can be suspended and you feel at peace.Emerging health benefits aside, what could be more healing than that?
Dr. Cathy Harvey is a recently retired Family Physician who for many years practiced at the Copeman Healthcare Centre in Vancouver. She cares deeply about music and ensures it is part of her life, every day.