The sound of music

Health correspondent ( 15 January 2015 )

Music is famously the food of love but some studies suggest it can also help ease depression, calm anxiety and aid recovery from illness.

The benefits of music have been recognised by healers since time immemorial and today an increasing body of scientific research supports this ancient wisdom.

‘Whereas we use words to communicate facts, we use music to communicate and evoke emotions,’ says psychologist Dr Mike Lowis. He has conducted research into the way that music can stimulate what he calls 'peak experiences' – moments of intense clarity and almost mystical euphoria. He attributes this to music's unique ability to unite the left (logical) and right (emotional) sides of our brains.

How music creates mood

As the makers of films and TV programmes – not to mention ads – well know, the right choice of music can create a mood faster than set, costume or script. ‘You only have to hear a snippet of a tune you have heard at a moment of high emotion to re-experience that emotion,’ says Lowis.

Music can also help distract us from pain, lift a miserable mood and even nudge our bodies into regulating their natural rhythms. ‘The emotional effects are believed to synchronise the brain cells and nerve pathways. For instance, it's almost impossible not to tune your walking to the pace of a piece of music you are listening to,’ he explains. This may help explain music's ability to help balance heart rate, blood pressure and breathing.

Music as medicine

US research has shown that music can help reduce anger and depression and promote better sleep in people with Alzheimer's disease; help people with Parkinson's disease or who have had strokes to walk more steadily and with better balance; ease depression and anxiety following a stroke and balance the heart rate in patients in intensive care. In fact, just half an hour of soothing music is said to be equivalent to 10mg of a tranquilliser such as valium – but without its side effects.

A growing number of hospitals here and in the US are using music to help patients in a variety of ways. For example, making it easier for those with chronic conditions, such as arthritis, to manage pain, decreasing the need for sedatives and pain-relieving drugs before an operation and helping ease the nausea of cancer treatment.

How music helps heal

As yet experts don't know exactly how music exerts its healing effects but increasingly it appears that the response is hard-wired into our brains. Human beings have a natural affinity for music. ‘When you look at brain scans of people listening to music the whole brain lights up like a Christmas tree,’ explains psychologist Dr Raymond Macdonald.

In fact, according to Macdonald, ‘The earliest communication between parents and children has more in common with music than language. Music plays a crucial role in the earliest bonding process between parent and child: we sing before we talk. And that affinity with music stays with us throughout life.’

Macdonald's own research in Scottish hospitals bears this out. He found that listening to a cassette of a favourite piece of music can help lower pain and anxiety in people undergoing minor surgery.

How to use music to make yourself feel better

When using music to modify mood – for example to lift depression, dampen anger or soothe anxiety – music therapists often start off by playing (or asking the patient to play) a piece of music to match their mood. They then gradually work towards a more positive piece that changes the mood.

The good news is that you don't have to visit a music therapist to tap into the healing powers of music. The means to heal yourself is almost certainly already there in your own tape or CD collection.

'Familiarity and the memories a particular piece of music evokes for you are all-important. The key thing is to choose something you like and have a personal relationship with – whether that is Beethoven or the Rolling Stones,' says Macdonald.

How singing helps you relax and feel more cheerful

Singing is one of life's great joys, whether or not you can stay in tune. ‘Try to sing whenever and wherever you can – in the bath, the shower, around the house. It'll help relax you and lift your mood,’ says Dr Raymond Macdonald.

How humming helps improve mood and memory

Humming can also help improve mood and memory. Mozart hummed as he composed, kids often hum when they're happy and, as adults, we often hum tunes that flit through our minds. So if you feel tired or lacklustre, it’s worth giving it a try.

Why learning an instrument can help improve confidence

If you've always nurtured a secret yen to play guitar, piano or drums it’s never too late to learn. According to Dr Raymond Macdonald, making music can help develop better communication skills and improve confidence and self-esteem. ‘For many of us our initial contact with playing an instrument was discouraging. But there's nothing magical about it, with the right encouragement everyone can enjoy making music. If you want to do it, devote a little time – say 30 minutes a day – to it and you will make progress,’ he says. To find a teacher look on the notice board at your local music store or contact the Musicians' Union.

Why classical music is more uplifting

For a real sense of uplift classical music is best, even if it’s not normally your favourite listening, according to Dr Mike Lowis. ‘In order to activate both sides of the brain, music needs to be complex so pop music and anything with a heavy beat doesn't usually work,’ he says. His study of peak experiences found that Wagner was more uplifting than Mozart, so try something stimulating like The Ride of the Valkyries. Or, if you're a classical novice start with a compilation of classical favourites and note down any composers you particularly like.

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