Music as Medicine

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"Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without." - Confucius, The Book of Rites

"Music is an outburst of the soul." - Frederick Delius, English composer

There is nothing I love more than playing my drums. I come from a musical family. Playing music and singing was an integral part of both my parents' lives. My Dad played sax and Mom played piano. As a young couple in the 1940's and 50's, they sang and played for dances in and around the two places we lived back then: Chaplin and Aneroid. I remember their band practices in the living room of our small house in Aneroid. As a baby, they usually took me with them. Wrapped in a blanket, they put me on a wooden bench next to them on the stage.

As a kid I learned to read music and took piano lessons but they ended when I got my first drum kit. I played regularly in three rock bands in Saskatoon from age 16 to 21. I play to this day with good local musicians where I now live, but not as often as I would like. Nothing makes me feel more energized and alive than playing music, and the camaraderie of making music with other musicians is like none other I've experienced. Everyone I've ever spoken to, who plays, says the same thing. It is electrifying.

Most people are not musicians, but they love their music just as much. When we listen to our favourite music we can hardly sit still; our toes tap, our fingers drum, and we sing along. It transforms us. It takes away gloom, eases pain, and we feel better instantly.

For centuries mankind has been strumming, bowing, drumming, plucking, fingering and blowing on some type of invented or improvised instrument in order to make music. It's been part of rituals and entertainment for as long as we've lived; used to stimulate, sooth, set an emotional tone or establish a rhythm. What is it about music that makes us feel so good from the inside out?

Recently, psychologists Chanda and Levitin (2013) at McGill University reviewed over 400 articles from peer-reviewed journals demonstrating improvement in health and well-being as a result of changes in the neurochemical activity in our bodies produced by music.

Music we like activates the pleasure centres in the brain by causing the release of the feel-good chemical dopamine. Relaxing music sooths us and helps lower anxiety by lowering the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Among medical patients, music vs. silence was shown to prevent stress-induced increases in heart rate and systolic blood pressure. The authors cite several studies which claim that activities such as group drumming, singing, clapping, marching and music-making counteract the decline of immune response due to stress and aging, particularly in older adults, thus contributing to better health.

One proposed explanation for how music achieves such effects is that it stimulates our brain stem, one of the most primitive components of our nervous system. This, in turn, helps regulate our heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, skin conductance, and muscle tension, all of which play a role in over-all well-being. The authors state, "Stimulating music produces increases in cardiovascular measures, whereas relaxing music produces decreases." These patterns are even observed in infants. This is logical since we know that, "brainstem neurons tend to fire synchronously with tempo," a characteristic of all music.

The author's complete article, The Neurochemistry of Music, published in an April, 2013 edition of Trends in Cognitive Science, is detailed and technical and it leaves little doubt that music, if we allow it to, can play a powerful role in our mental and physical health. We should bring more music to our life. It's an easy way to enhance our health and help us live well between our ears.

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