Music hath charms…

By the time you read this, the final notes of this year’s Rehoboth Beach Autumn Jazz Festival will have faded away. How can music (nothing more, really, than periodic variations in air pressure) make us crave the presence of those fortunate—and talented—enough to produce those pleasurable sounds? Few things can trigger such intense memories and feelings like a song or melody from our past. And, of course, ‘music hath charms to soothe the savage beast.’

Though I’m not really going for the savage beast angle, the whole thing got me thinking about the effect that music has on our emotions. From the amateur flailings of ‘American Idol’ and semi-sober karaoke, all the way to the expertly crafted genius of a seasoned ensemble or performer, we humans will flock to any place where we suspect music may be happening. What is it that draws us there?

More than a valuable form of recreation and escape, music is increasingly being recognized as a form of psychotherapy. It’s even being used to help create a more pleasant birth experience. Tiffany Ford, a certified music therapist in North Dakota, says, ‘Music has a lot of really great benefits for labor and delivery because it helps with attention focus. It also helps with relaxation. It helps a lot with distraction.’ Music therapists like Ford work to help people experience different emotions by listening to different types of music.

Ford also works with the parents of newborns by using music to interact and connect with their children. She offers ‘Music Therapy for Little Ears’ to help them with developmental skills, often as early as 3 months old. The children explore small musical instruments that are made specifically for babies, with softer sounds and bright colors.

Beverly Gross, also a certified music therapist, has used music therapy to help with the recovery of stroke victims. ‘Music is incredibly powerful,’ she says. Because the brain is wired for rhythm and music, Gross says when someone has a traumatic brain injury, music can help jump-start their ability to walk and speak.

Most of us have heard a song from our past, and instantly relived either the painful or uplifting aspects of that time. Music also has a way of taking you into the present. One of the first rules of stress reduction is to live in the present. Regular readers of this column know that I always emphasize the value of ‘thinking long-range, while living in the moment.’ Well, in order to do that, we need tools, and the remarkable thing about music is that it seems to be a tool for all people, across all times and cultures. While tastes in music can vary widely, the need for music appears to be universal.

As I write these words, I’m listening to music in the background. Just minutes ago, as I wrote the preceding paragraph (I am not making this up), a song came on that literally took me back 20 years in time to an airplane ride, during takeoff at night in New York City. That classic skyline at two in the morning was a memorable view—and at that moment I was listening to that particular song on my headphones. I sat here and relived that moment—something I haven’t even thought about for years. The power of music is, indeed, amazing.

According to Norman Weinberger, professor of neurobiology and behavior at University of California-Irvine, ‘Music exists in every culture, and infants have excellent musical abilities that cannot be explained by learning. Mothers everywhere sing to their infants because babies understand it. Music seems to be part of our biological heritage.’

Music is a great form of escape. While I don’t advocate a complete escape from reality, the use of something non-toxic to refuel your spirits, lift your mood and give you perspective is essential for coping with the difficulties of life. Research has shown that people use music in different ways. The ‘British Journal of Psychology’ suggests that those who are more intellectual and open—and those with higher IQs—are more likely to appreciate music in a rational, cognitive way. They focus on musical complexity, appraising pieces and performances with a critical ear—and they’re less moved by what they hear. People who are more neurotic, more introverted, and less conscientious use music more for emotional regulation—say, as a pick-me-up after a hard day. Of course, many of us draw on both the analytical and emotional benefits of music. Some pay close attention to lyrics and value what the words have to say, while others are more tuned in to the tone, rhythm and overall sonic experience.

Music provides an opportunity for introspection and self-reflection. In order to progress in life, we all have to think. Part of ‘thinking’ means being in touch with our emotions, values and aspirations—grand and small, for today and for the rest of our lives. My experience has shown that, as life circumstances change, people sometimes become confused about what they want. Music can help us become more aware of what we want.

Just for fun, spend some time listening to your favorite music. Engage in some productive daydreaming. (Avoid doing this in your car.) Get in touch with what’s important to you, and then plan your life from there. Who knows? Music therapy may be the best therapy of all.