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“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” ~ Plato
I was born with music in my blood.
We all were—whether we recognize it or not.
Music is the first language we learn. In every culture known, mothers sing to their infants. On the playground, children talk to each other in singsong voices: “Na, na-na na na.” Music is used to:
>> Educate us (how many of us learned our letters to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star?”).
>> Inspire us (who doesn’t get an adrenaline rush listening to “Eye of the Tiger?”).
>> Seduce us (Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it on,” anyone?).
>> And soothe us (insert your favorite lullaby here).
When we step out on the porch to call our kids and pets home, we use a melodic two or three tones: “La-ssie!” “E-li-as!”
Close your eyes and think about it: can you hear it?
From our earliest moments, music is ingrained in our brains. We will often associate a piece of music with some significant happening in our life (do you remember what was playing on your first date with your spouse?), and hearing that music again has the power to transport us instantly to that time and place in our memory.
Music of social significance (think classic hits) also becomes ingrained in our minds. Raise your hand if, when you hear the song “Hey Jude,” you can immediately chime in and sing along with the chorus: “Na, na, na, nanana na, nanana na, he-ey Jude…”
Not only does our brain automatically supply us with the lyrics and notes, but when the key signature changes in the middle of a song, our brain can instantly transpose on the fly for us, and the correct notes will pop out when we open our mouths to sing again.
This was demonstrated for me at a recent lecture I attended, where the lecturer sat at the piano and randomly changed the key signature of a piece he had us singing, simply by playing a new intro chord, and the audience was able to track the change and adjust their pitch, even though many did not consider themselves singers.
I have been a musician all my life; first as a child taking piano lessons, then as a singer in a community choir as an adult. Music has been present at all the important moments of my life, from marriage to childbirth, to the death of my father who passed with his family surrounding him, and gentle music playing in the background. Because of these experiences, I have long been a believer in the soothing power of music.
Could music limit the effects of aging and neurodegenerative diseases? Can listening to, practicing, and performing music keep our brains young and healthy? The answers to these questions are of significance for many aging cultures around the world, as we seek ways to slow the progression of the seemingly unstoppable illnesses and mental decline that appear as we get older.
Research has shown that listening to music can reduce anxiety, blood pressure, and pain as well as improve sleep quality, mood, mental alertness, and memory. It is a profound fact that when music is performed in a group, it has a stabilizing and unifying effect, and often the heart rates and breathing of the performers become synched.
The connection between music and our brains is powerful. It’s no wonder, then, that researchers are exploring this connection, and their findings are remarkable. As we age, our brains undergo a variety of changes, affecting things like memory, motor, and sensory function. Many of these changes are exacerbated in diseases like Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. But music may have the capacity to bridge or bypass neural pathways that have previously been damaged by those and other age-related illnesses.
“Where words fail, music speaks.” ~ Hans Christian Andersen
The idea that music could be used as therapy and preventative medicine has always fascinated me, but when my 88-year-old father began showing signs of age-related confusion and memory loss before his death, it became personal. My siblings and I racked our brains looking for ways to help, not only with his confusion, but also his anxiety over what was happening to him.
My mother is also a lifelong musician and growing up it seemed there was almost always music playing in the house. We suggested that they plug in the stereo that hadn’t been set up after their recent move and start listening to music again. It was our belief that having the familiar background of music playing would be a good first step to help lower Dad’s stress, which might in turn ease some of his bouts of confusion.
Searching for more information on ways to help, I attended a local presentation on The Neuroscience of Music given by Dr. Larry Sherman, a musician and Professor of Neuroscience at the Oregon Health and Science University. He studies normal brain development and neurodegenerative diseases. He proved that areas of the brain affected negatively by age-related dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases are also positively impacted by listening to music.
Brain scans show areas in all parts of the brain lighting up in response when people listen to music. Study after study has shown that the simple act of listening to music may help people with Alzheimer’s feel like themselves again, carry on conversations and remain more in the present moment.
A nonprofit organization in New York called Music and Memory has made it their mission to bring personalized music into the lives of the elderly in thousands of care facilities around the world, in order to improve their quality of life. The results have been nothing short of miraculous.
John, an elderly man in a facility in Australia, used to be in the navy but dementia has separated him from his memories. After listening to just one song from a tailor-made playlist of the music he appreciated during his life, John was able to access his memories of that song, and the time in his life during which it was pertinent, and to have a conversation about it.
Mary, another resident of the same facility, also suffers from dementia. Her son helped choose the songs on her playlist. When they placed the headphones on her, Mary immediately started moving to the music, and memories of her love of dancing came flooding back to her.
Henry has been in a nursing home for 10 years. Prior to suffering from seizures and dementia, Henry was a fun-loving man who had a song on his lips for every occasion. Now he is depressed, unresponsive, barely there. When he is given an iPod containing his favorite music, his face lights up, his feet start moving, and he starts to sing, reanimated by the music. Normally mute, after listening to the music, Henry can have a conversation about his memories, remembering who he is and who he was.
“You can actually see the power of music,” says Dr. Jonathan Burdette, a neuroradiologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, and a proponent of programs like Music and Memory. “People who were just sitting there, not engaged in anything, light up when they start hearing music from when they were 25. It’s fantastic. What else can do that? I can’t think of anything other than music.”
Music seems to be a “backdoor” into the brain that allows people with Alzheimer’s and dementia to come alive, regain their identity, and to come out of the withdrawal commonly associated with those diseases, and reconnect with the people around them.
For those of us who don’t yet suffer the effects of aging on the brain, music can have preventative qualities. Experts from Johns Hopkins have this to say: “There are few things that stimulate the brain the way music does. If you want to keep your brain engaged throughout the aging process, listening to or playing music is a great tool. It provides a total brain workout.”
Here are some of the tips they suggest for keeping your brain healthy with music:
Listen to music. Exercise your memory by listening to music that is familiar and nostalgic to you. This can help your brain maintain long-term memory. Challenge your brain by listening to new music as well—try listening to the tunes your kids and grandkids listen to. You may be surprised to find something you like!
Make music. If you like to sing, sing. Sing in the car. Sing in the shower. Better yet, sing in a choir. Studies show that choral singing improves our mood, and decreases stress, depression, and anxiety. This may be due to the deeper breathing associated with singing, much the same as meditation.
Singing in a group also creates a sense of belonging or community. Physical health is also improved with lowered blood pressure, increased blood oxygen saturation, elevated immunity, a higher pain threshold, and stronger respiratory muscles.
Studies have shown that learning to play an instrument as an adult can have benefits in many areas, such as increased blood flow to the brain, improved attention, memory, reading, and problem-solving skills, along with reduced stress, and better quality of life. Practicing music can enhance the number of synapses in the brain that control motor functions, as well as enhancing neurogenesis linked to improved learning and memory activity.
Though music is as universal as language, many people would not consider themselves musicians. If scientists are correct, however, incorporating more music into our lives may be the key to a healthier brain as we age.
Researchers all agree, you don’t have to become a pro, just take some lessons. Your brain will thank you.