“One good thing about music is when it hits you, you feel no pain.” -Bob Marley
For centuries, music has been recognized as a potent source of pleasure and a powerful resource for healing. A landmark study released this summer from Montreal’s McGill University suggests the euphoria experienced while enjoying music is triggered by the same opioid-like brain chemicals that give humans the pleasurable feelings associated with sex and recreational drugs.
According to The American Music Therapy Association, the 20th-century discipline of using music to boost mood and to change behavior emerged following World Wars I and II, when community musicians toured U.S. veterans’ hospitals to play for the thousands of patients suffering from physical and emotional trauma. The veterans’ positive responses to music were so significant that doctors and nurses urged hospital administrators to begin hiring musicians as part of structured therapy teams. Subsequent demand for a college curriculum to train hospital musicians prompted Michigan State University to establish the world’s first music therapy degree program in 1944.
My father, Dr. Davis Bingham, is a lifelong professional vocal performer and choral music educator. He and his wife Joan live in a North Carolina continuing care retirement community where the average age is 82. Earlier this year, the couple recruited several dozen residents to perform in a musical show featuring popular songs of the 1940s and 50s. “As the music evoked sweet memories of bygone days, the audience responded with exuberant applause, mixed at times with a few tears,” says Bingham. “What’s more, members of the chorale not only felt a sense of pride and accomplishment for having embraced the discipline of 17 rehearsals leading up to the show, but they also said the challenge to learn something new made them feel more alive.”
Emily Gagnon, a Canadian nurse, agrees music is an audible tonic. Inspired by the documentary “Alive Inside,” Gagnon created a program called Musical Memories to give nursing home residents a way to listen to their favorite tunes each day. “I interviewed patients and their families to customize a playlist, and then uploaded it on listening devices purchased with donations,” she explains. “Providing familiar music to seniors evokes a sense of familiarity, stimulates joyful thoughts and reconnects them to their lifetime of memories. As Georgia Cates said, ‘Music is what feelings sound like.’”
Affinity for music apparently begins while we are in the womb. Although the science is limited, studies show at 33 weeks, some babies breathe in sync with music, and some even respond differently to various genres. Other research shows babies exposed to classical music from birth to six months have longer attention spans, as well as better motor skills, language development and cognition.
Learning to play an instrument seems to have even more profound benefits – like improving a person’s listening and hearing skills over a short time. Dr. Bernhard Ross, senior scientist at Rotman Research Institute, is the senior researcher for a study published in the May 2017 issue of Journal of Neuroscience. He says, “Learning the fine movement needed to reproduce sound on an instrument changes the brain’s perception of sound in a way that is not seen when only listening to music. This study was the first time we saw direct changes in the brain after only one session, possibly because playing an instrument requires the brain’s hearing, motor and perception systems to work together.”
Practitioners like Dr. David Hulse of Columbus, Ohio, bridge the fields of metaphysics and holistic medicine with sound therapy. “SomaEnergetics – a combination of soma, the Greek word for ‘body’, with energetics, a reference to the body’s vibrational template – builds on the science that certain frequencies restructure the body’s energy systems to facilitate healing,” he says. “We teach therapists how to use tuning forks matched to ancient Solfeggio tones as a tool to repattern energetic blockages in such a way the body can more freely to return to a natural state of vibrant good health.”
Music also provides a pathway to vibrant mental health, especially for patients who are resistant to other treatment approaches. Under the guidance of a credentialed professional, clients with mental health concerns use musical interaction as a way to communicate, develop relationships and address issues without depending on words alone. Music therapy sessions include the use of active music-making, music listening and discussion.
To demonstrate the power of music to blur geographical boundaries, blend disparate cultures and inspire hope for both artists and audiences alike, acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma assembled an extraordinary group of musicians called The Silk Road Ensemble, so named for the ancient trade route linking Asia, Africa and Europe. Collectively, their intensely personal journeys over 16 years paint a vivid portrait of a bold musical experiment and a global search for the ties that bind. “If you are aware of what you have and how precious it is – the breath you take, the music in your life, the people around you – it is enormous wealth,” says Ma, “and it doesn’t take anything to complete it.”