Music moves us — not just physically, but emotionally and psychologically, reducing stress and improving mood. And it’s been doing it for centuries, writes
In the darkest days of an Irish winter, music feels like a shard of light cutting through the gloom. Intuitively, we all know music has the ability to improve our moods. It can’t make clouds disappear, but it can help disperse the figurative ones.
This sense that music has the potential to nourish the soul and keep blues at bay is supported by research. Studies have demonstrated music may reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol and boost blood flow in a similar way to statins.
“Research has found that music can benefit the whole person, promoting physical, psychological, emotional, and social well-being,” says Dublin-based singer-songwriter and music therapist Clara Rose.
“In my work as a music therapist I have witnessed first-hand amazing developments in my clients,” she says. “For example, stroke patients who have lost the power of speech still being able to sing.
“This is because we store language and memory in different parts of the brain. The ability to speak may be reduced by a stroke, but the memory of a song is still present.
“Music therapy can be used to aid speech rehabilitation for stroke survivors.”
“The innate musicality of human beings and the healing power of music has been written about and documented from as far back as the writings of Aristotle and Plato,” adds Siân Brown, a music therapist who studied at the University of Limerick.
Music is deeply rooted as a healing tool in all cultures and civilisations. The oldest example of the contextual use of music for healing may be the depiction of harp-playing priests and musicians in frescos from 4,000BC.
“Music can even affect our heart rate and breathing, and trigger the release of feel-good endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, etc, while also reducing cortisol,” says Brown, who is also a singer/songwriter.
With insomnia on the rise, there is evidence, too, that music can assist with sleep.
“We are all aware of the age-old practice of parents singing lullabies to their children to induce sleep,” says Rose.
“This shows that there is a very natural element of music that helps us sleep. It is a special combination of rhythm, melody, and words that create a safe space for the baby. And when sung by a primary caregiver, this further enhances feelings of safety and security that ‘lull’ them to sleep. Therefore, as adults, we can try to re-create this with our own music choices.
“I have a few created playlists which I use at night to calm the mind and settle me to sleep. Nothing beats the sound of my mother singing lullabies though, although she has quit that at this point, unfortunately.”
One theory is that music “selectively activates” neurochemicals associated with positive mood and attention and memory.
“Music moves us,” says Rose. “Whether this is physically, such as dancing/moving to music, or emotionally moving people through what a song or piece of music can trigger for people.
“People also frequently use music to motivate them to exercise. For example, there is research to show that music with 120-140 beats per minute is the most effective to listen to when running.”
Music therapy can take several forms.
“Guided imagery in music” involves a therapist helping to explore life challenges by listening to music of the patient’s choosing. Therapy may also involve singing or playing instruments.
In winter, the transformative powers of music may seem especially potent.
“There are many papers on how music and music therapy can help with depression,” says Brown. “Even if it’s not clinical depression and maybe just a low mood, music can be used for ‘upliftment’.
“January is famous for being a month where most people in this part of the world will feel a little low,” she continues.
It’s dark, cold, and everyone feels a bit battered after the madness and overindulgence of Christmas time. Group music-making in music therapy has been shown to be incredibly uplifting for all members. A kind of ‘we’re all in this together’ comfort in community.
There is evidence, too, that music can reduce stress and improve well-being for older people experiencing cognitive decline. A 2016 study by the West Virginia University’s School of Public Health found that music was a “powerful tool” for “overall health and well-being”.
“Neurological impairment due to old age can bring disconnection.
“Regions of the brain can be left isolated and impaired, along with body functions, relationships, self-image and social structures,” says Brown.
“Music works on connections between brain cells and between people. Individually and socially, music can be a powerful tool in caring for the elderly.
“As I work with older people in hospital at present, this is a key area of my work,” says Clara Rose. “Many referrals are for older people experiencing cognitive decline and for music therapy to promote cognitive stimulation. This can be through song-singing, music improvisation, songwriting, or learning new songs. Meaningful songs can help older people engage in positive reminiscence about their past experiences. Therefore, music is a useful tool to promote cognitive stimulation.”
Curiously, music doesn’t have to be explicitly upbeat to raise our spirits.
“Radiohead got me through my teenage angst years,” says Rose. “I would listen to them and think: ‘That song is about me, how did they know how I’m feeling?’ So what does this say? It can be that music we can relate to on a personal level is the most powerful for us.
“I often find that music therapy clients want to use specific, meaningful music to access their past experiences internally and process them. Sometimes these can be negative, difficult experiences. I worked with a man who had had a road traffic collision in which he had suffered life-altering injuries and he would consistently ask me to play a song for him in his music therapy session. He then told me that this was the song he was listening to when he had the [accident].”
“Everyone is different,” agrees Brown. “Some people would never dream of listening to a sad song when they are feeling down. I can’t think of a more infuriating thing as to listen to than, say, Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’ when I’m having a dark day. Yet if I’m having an amazing day I will occasionally sing ‘Everything is Awesome’ [from The Lego Movie]. Music is beautifully personal. Each to their own. You do you, as they say. If I have a client that is really down and wants me to sing a very dark song, I won’t suggest a happier tune. I’ll play their dark song.”
The lesson, it seems, is that even when it feels these dark days are going to last forever, music is always there for us. “Every time it rains/You’re here in my head/Like the sun coming out,” cooed Kate Bush on her 1985 single “Cloudbusting”. She could have been singing about music itself, and how it can brighten the bleakest moment.
SONGS TO CHILL OUT TO
Imagine lying in a cradle being gently jostled by the waves yet knowing no harm can come to you. That’s the feeling you get from this 20-minute minisymphony from English composer Glen Johnson.
Swooping guitar pop that brims with melancholy and yet makes it feel as if your stereo is reaching out to hug you.
Amos vocals never felt more untethered than in this song which aims for the stratosphere and shoots straight towards the sun.
Listening to this remix of Eilish’s 2018 single is like falling asleep in a warm bath as dusk gathers from outside. The original is great too – but this remix ratchets the chill level all the way up.
Martyn’s folk-pop masterpiece seems to seep from the speakers as if from a parallel dimension. Set bliss factor to 10.