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The Positive Power of Music

By Dana Nourie

from Family Circle 6/2/00

Imagine watching the movie Titanic without the sound track – no music to mirror the rising tension, no love song, no lush score. Or Doctor Zhivago without the haunting “Lara’s Theme.” Or Rocky without “Eye of the Tiger.” Almost all movies rely on music to set the mood – to evoke feelings in the audience that even Oscar-winning acting can’t accomplish alone.

We use songs every day in much the same way – who hasn’t played some soothing classical pieces after a long day at work or romantic ballads to accompany a candle-lit dinner for two? “The music we listen to affects how we fell, think and act every day of our lives,” says Elizabeth Miles, author of Tune Your Brain: Using Music to Manage Your Mind, Body, and Mood (Berkley Books). “Your CD collection is capable of lifting the blues, boosting your energy, helping you unwind and everything in between.”

Mary Boone, a public relations manager from Tacoma, Washington, uses her favorite album to get her in the mood for housekeeping. “Cleaning the house is only tolerable when I toss on some Bonnie Raitt,” she says. “Suddenly, even dusting seems fun.”

How does bluesy rock motivate Mary to clean the house? For starters, any kind of fast-paced rhythmic music increases our blood pressure, pulse and breathing rates, which primes our body for action. At the same time, it triggers beta waves in the brain that increase a person’s ability to respond and act quickly. These impulses continue down the spinal cord, literally electrifying the body. The quicker the impulses travel to the muscles, the more you’ll want to move – which is why up-tempo tunes sparke an urge to dance or, in Mary’s case, dust, vacuum and scrub.

Can any of this actually make you feel happy? Yes, says Miles. Like exercise, “music has been found to create endorphins, feel-good chemicals in the brain.” To give yourself a lift, she suggests listening to your favorite Broadway show tunes of songs such as “I Got You (I Feel Good),” by James Brown – their beats and rhythms stimulate your body, and their happy lyrics reinforce the uplifting tone.

Can You Fine-Tune Your Feelings?

Instead of playing upbeat songs to feel better, Nessa Flax, a writer from Ryegate Corner, Vermont, does just the opposite when she’s feeling blue. “If I’m missing my parents, who are both deceased, I’ll play some Sinatra. He was a musical fixture in our home, and even though listening to him brings on the tears, it feels good to embrace that sadness,” she says.

She’s not alone. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University, Altoona, found that people enjoyed listening to sad, slow songs more than upbeat, happy songs even if it made them feel depressed. “As long as people gave the music a high aesthetic rating, it was perceived as pleasurable despite the sad content,” says Valerie Stratton, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology. And like Nessa, if you’re already feeling sad, “the music can serve as solace and diminish feelings of isolation because it’s expressing the same emotions you’re feeling.”

Dr. Stratton has also found that songs are effective for relaxation therapy only if the listener likes them. Typically, relaxation CD’s contain slow, soft tunes with simple, predictable patterns, since they can lower blood pressure and muscle tension. A human heart usually beats 70 to 80 times a minute, so it seems logical that slower songs – Bach’s “Air on the G String,” for example, which clocks in at about 50 beats per minute – can help relax the body. But Dr. Stratton has found that precategorizing music doesn’t always work. “Even if the songs are played at a slow tempo, if you don’t like easy-listening music, for example, it won’t relax you – it will annoy you instead,” she says. “The melodies must resonate with the listener to be effective.”

Can Music Make You Smarter?

In 1993 researchers at the University of California, Irvine, published a study documenting the so-called “Mozart effect.” The experiment, conducted on college students, showed that listening to a Mozart sonata improved performance on space-time reasoning tests. Since then, music companies have packaged CD’s to “improve intelligence” in listeners, while zealous parents have played Mozart to babies still in the womb.

Not so fast, says Gordon Shaw, Ph.D., the professor physics who conducted the famous study. “Future studies may yield hope, but currently there is no research documenting long-term effects, and no data for young children.”

On a more promising note, Dr. Shaw has recently studied the effects of learning to play music – not simply listening – on second graders. The results have been dramatic. In the most recent research, children who received training on the keyboard as well as on video-game software designed to teach reasoning skills scored 27 percent higher on math tests than classmates who received software training alone.

“There’s no doubt something special is going on here,” says Dr. Shaw. He and his colleagues believe that learning to play music encourages children to recognize patterns and symmetries, which primes their brains and enhances the kind of skills involved in solving math problems.

The Fountain of Youth?

You don’t have to be young to benefit from learning to play an instrument. A recent collaborative study by six universities found that senior citizens who took group organ lessons for 20 weeks experienced less anxiety, depression, and loneliness than those who did not take lessons. But are the benefits specific to music, or can seniors participate in, say, knitting lessons and reap the same rewards? “Meeting new people and feeling a sense of accomplishment from learning a new skill do play a role,” says lead researcher Frederick Tims, Ph.D., professor of music therapy at Michigan State University. “But over the course of 10 years of studies with music, we see physiological changes related to stress levels that we don’t see elsewhere.”

Researchers still aren’t sure exactly why learning to play a new instrument or listening to a favorite album can have a healing effect, but if it makes you feel good, why not? For now, there doesn’t seem to be an all-purpose remedy as safe, reliable or enjoyable as music.



"Let us come before Him with thanksgiving and extol Him with music and song." Psalms 95:2

"Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music." Psalms 98:4