By the time you read this, the final notes of this year’s Rehoboth Beach Jazz Festival will have faded away. Why does music have such a magnetic effect on us? From the amateur flailings of semi-sober karaoke all the way to the expertly crafted genius of a seasoned ensemble, humans will flock to any place where music may be happening. How can music (nothing more, really, than periodic variations in air pressure) trigger such intense memories and feelings?
More than a just recreation, music is increasingly 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 great benefits for labor and delivery because it helps with attention focus. It also helps with relaxation [and] distraction.” Music therapists like Ford help people experience different emotions by listening to different types of music.
She also uses music to help the parents of newborns interact and connect with their children. With her “Music Therapy for Little Ears,” she helps children explore specially crafted instruments with softer sounds and bright colors.
Beverly Gross, also a music therapist, uses music to help in the recovery of stroke victims. “Music is incredibly powerful,” she says. Because the brain is wired for rhythm and music, when someone has a traumatic brain injury, music can help jump-start their ability to walk and speak.
Upon hearing a song from our past, many of us will instantly relive the painful or uplifting aspects of that time. Music can also anchor you in the present. Regular readers of this column know that I constantly emphasize the value of thinking long-range while living in the moment. In order to do that, we need tools, and music seems to be a tool for everybody across all times and cultures. While tastes in music can vary, the need for it appears to be universal.
Right now, in my office, music is playing in the background. As I wrote the preceding paragraph (I am not making this up), a song came on that whisked me back 32 years to a late-night airplane ride leaving New York City. As I marveled at that classic skyline, this very song was playing in my headphones. I just relived that audio-visual moment all over again. OK. Back to work.
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 nontoxic to refuel your spirits and lift your mood is essential for coping with life. Research shows 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 the complexity, appraising with a critical ear. Conversely, those who tend to be introverted 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; some paying attention to lyrics, while others tune in to the rhythm and sonic experience.
Music provides an opportunity for introspection and self-reflection. In order to progress, we all have to think. Part of that involves being in touch with our emotions and aspirations. As life circumstances change, people sometimes become confused about what they want. Music can help us become more aware of how we feel.
Spend some time listening to your favorite music. Perhaps even engage in some productive daydreaming. In that relaxed state, connect with what’s important to you, and then plan your life from there. Who knows? Perhaps music therapy is the best therapy of all.