Music has the ability to stir powerful emotions. Almost everyone has had the experience of hearing a piece of music and feeling powerfully moved. It’s a technique often used by advertisers, who play on themes of romance, nostalgia, and many others to increase the appeal of their products. It’s a technique used by film producers, who select bombastic scores for their movies to ensure that each scene lands with the right emotional impact. And, of course, pop songwriters compose their tunes carefully, knowing that the right chord progression has the power to bring a listener to tears.
But why does music have this effect on us as listeners? And how can we harness the power of music to bring ourselves peace and comfort? Read on and discover the power of healing music.
The Science of Listening to Music
Let’s begin by looking at exactly how music is perceived by our brains. Studies tell us that tunes and melodies are perceived primarily by the right hemisphere of the brain. This is the part of the brain that might be characterized as more emotional—strong in intuitive and creative processes and a powerful source of imagination. It is also believed that psychological trauma has a greater impact on the right hemisphere of the brain. It is easy to understand, therefore, why chord progressions and well-written melodies can have such a powerful impact on us—they resonate with the side of our brain that processes emotions. When you feel like a tune is stirring your heart, it’s probably actually stirring the right hemisphere of your brain!
So what about the left hemisphere of the brain? Among other things, it’s the language center. It’s also the more logic-based side of the brain. So when you’re listening to a song on the radio and you hear a lyric that moves you, that’s probably the left side of your brain responding. Consider this—although melodies and lyrics both provoke emotional reactions, when you hear a lyric you like, you’re far more likely to be able to explain why you like it. That’s the logic-based left hemisphere of your brain kicking into action.
Rhythm, meanwhile, is an aspect of music that is perceived by the whole brain, not one half or the other. What does this mean? Any time you’re listening to a musical composition that has a combination of melody, rhythm, and lyrics, you’re engaging your whole brain. No wonder music is such a powerful force.
The Healing Power of Music
So how can we put music to use as a healing factor? There are several ways. In fact, almost any ailment can be ameliorated by the power of music.
Remedy for Physical Ailments
Because of the way music impacts our brains, it can be used as a tool to modify cognitive processes and effect change in brain patterns. Several case studies have shown examples of music being used to improve the conditions of people suffering from such ailments as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, stroke, anxiety, and depression. How does it work? Well, in addition to the left and right hemispheres of the brain, studies have indicated that music actually impacts the brain stem. This is highly significant, because the brain stem controls the flow of messages between the brain and the rest of the body. A healthy, active brain stem means improved health for the rest of the body, and musical stimulation can provide that.
And studies into the healing power of music when it comes to physiological complaints are ongoing. Vibroacoustic therapy explores the effects of sound waves on various health complaints and is being studied in preeminent universities by top scientists. And Daniel Levitin, PhD and author of “This is Your Brain on Music” has uncovered powerful evidence regarding the effectiveness of music on stress. Notably, Levitin’s research indicates that music therapy may be more effective than prescription drugs in reducing anxiety before surgery. Listening to music can also increase the body’s production of immune cells that attack and kill viruses.
Being in good health is not just a matter of the physical. Plenty of our pain as human beings is emotional or psychological in nature. As discussed previously, music has the ability to play powerfully on our emotions. Understanding the science behind that fact—the way music is perceived in the various parts of the brain—is a vital component to understanding why music affects us the way it does. But knowing the science, how can we best put it to use?
Recall our earlier exploration of melody and how it spoke to the same part of the brain as is affected by, for example, childhood trauma—the right hemisphere. Because of that, melodies may stir loose emotions we didn’t even know we had. Music can prove to be the perfect tool to help us realize old hurts, face the pain, and start to heal.
It’s also worthwhile to take a look at the history of music, its evolution, and the impact it has had on human societies. Almost every society of humans on the planet has a long history of singing and dancing—it’s one of the earliest ways communities learned to come together. What that tells us is that our sense of personal identity is related to music. In fact, cutting edge neuroscience confirms that sharing rhythm through music with other people creates a blurring of our sense of self—in a very real way, we begin to see the others in our community as a part of ourselves. Social relationships are a crucial building block for strong emotional health, and music helps us find and cement these relationships.