Health Watch: Music holds sway over body, mind

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— Humans are born hard-wired for music.

Studies of infants show that as early as the first weeks of life, they understand and respond to basic musical patterns. A part of every human culture, music dates back at least 40,000 years, as evidenced by cave paintings in France depicting a figure playing a single-stringed instrument.

Although music offers no specific survival advantage to rival language and tool making, it historically has performed symbolic and ritualistic functions that go beyond entertainment. Armies are rallied by drums, bagpipes and bugles; religious rituals use songs and chants; and singers and musicians have long fostered group identity by bringing audiences together.

As scientist increase their knowledge about how music affects the brain, we're expanding our concept of the role of music. Increasingly, music is used for healing, for mental health therapy, to decrease psychological and physical stress and to promote learning in children.

Even the most casual of listeners understands how music can affect mood and emotion. Through rhythm and vibration, music enters the body and can literally change our physical state.

A hard driving rhythm can excite our senses and pump up the heart and breathing rate.

Music that might jangle the nerves of parents can provide teens a release of stress and an outlet for emotional energy. Adults are more likely to find release in more calming rhythms.

In a process known as "rhythm entertainment," our bodies respond to the beat of the music we're listening to, the heart and pulse speeding up or slowing down depending on the external stimulus. Musical pulses can be produced to duplicate the frequency of brain waves from the normal, waking beta waves of 13 to 30 Hertz cycles per second to the beta waves of four to seven Hertz that we achieve in states of deep meditation or when we daydream.

We are beginning to harness the power of music for its ability to heal, to counter stress and to relieve pain. Although many may dismiss talk of the power of music as being "new age," others are swayed by tangible results.

In Missoula, Mont., a group of singers known as The Chalice of Repose has been able to ease the pain and distress of dying patients by singing to them. The group uses Gregorian chants, a musical form that can be adapted to match the rhythm of a patient's breathing.

At first, doctors treating the dying thought the project was a fine idea but didn't see it had any medical value. Twelve years of results now show that patients visited by the Chalice singers decrease their levels of stress and cut back dramatically on the amount of pain medication they need, some even discontinuing the medication altogether.

Now, 89 doctors from the area refer patients to this project.

Nurses from the cardiac unit at the Massachusetts General Hospital published a study of the beneficial effects of music on heart patients undergoing invasive cardiac procedures.

They found that patients who listened to music and ocean noises for 30 minutes had lower blood pressure, a more relaxed breathing pattern and lower overall stress levels during taxing procedures.

Although, as the examples illustrate, music doesn't cure disease, it can certainly ease stress and create calming heart, brain and breathing rhythms that promote healing and repose.

Music and memory

Music is intrinsically tied to memory. Grade school teachers know that encoding information in a musical sequence makes it easier to retrieve. Fourth-graders who learn "Fifty Nifty United States," a chant-like song that lists all 50 states in alphabetical order, are able to name the 50 states with ease.

Our brain has a propensity for remembering both melody and words tied to melody. Most of us can remember the words of dozens, if not hundreds of songs, yet many would be hard pressed to recite more than a handful of poems by heart and ever fewer prose pieces.

Alzheimer's patients whose disease has progressed to the point of no longer being able to speak, often sing with enthusiasm, remembering words to songs from the past. When the song ends, however, the inability to speak returns.

The special place for music in the aging mind makes it a useful therapeutic tool for seniors with only mild memory loss. Melodies, even those that aren't familiar, can unlock memories from the past, prompting seniors to share their personal history and become more social.

One senior center uses sing-alongs around the piano to increase social interaction. As soon as the piano begins to play, seniors who were half-dozing or lost in private thought respond with smiles and movement, tapping toes and singing along to old favorites.

The same center uses familiar tunes to accompany physical therapy sessions. Moving to music keeps the seniors more engaged, and they are more likely to see physical therapy as entertainment rather than a chore.

Music can play an important role in a young brain as well as old. One famous study showed that students who listened to music by Mozart before taking a test scored higher than students who did not listen to music. Known as the "Mozart effect," the improved was short lived, however, lasting less than an hour.

A number of studies have shown more lasting effects on enhanced mathematical abilities in students who learn to play a musical instrument. One study of second-grade students compared three groups; one group had piano lessons for four months of practice with a math video game; a second group was given extra lessons in language arts plus practice with a math video game; the third group had no extra lessons. After four months, the piano lesson group scored 15 to 40 percent higher on tests of ratios and fractions than the other two groups.

This study confirmed a link already observed between playing a musical instrument and enhanced mathematical ability. Researchers believe that learning to play a musical instrument involves many areas of the brain and encourages communication between the left and right brain.

Music speaks deeply to the human spirit. Infants respond to lullabies and to sing-song tones we adopt when communicating with them. Musical tastes and expression vary widely within and between cultures. But at the deepest level, we all tap into the rhythm of life.

As we expand our knowledge of how music affects specific areas of the brain, we will find more ways to unleash the power of music to teach, to comfort and to heal.

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