What a time we’ve entered into. As a medical music therapist, I have seen patients and hospital staff facing some of their most challenging times, and what I’ve noticed time and time again is there is something about music. It soothes us. It changes the environment; takes us all to a different place. You see countless videos of communities coming together in song. When we need a beacon of light and hope, the world unanimously, and almost subconsciously, turns to music.
What is it about music? This question of why our brains are affected by music the way they are has always been interesting to me. I spent my time in graduate school studying music through the neurologic lens. What happens in our brains when music is present; what changes? We know that music is one of the only things that engages multiple areas of our brains at one time. Neuroscientists believe this is why music can have such vast connections with multiple sensory focuses like smell, memory, emotion, and social connection. Our brains are fantastically wired to “learn” and are continuously doing so throughout our lives. Since music is present in so many areas of our brain, it can actually act as a super-highway for learning. It’s why singing and using rhythm can help retrain someone to walk, and how singing words can be used to re-learn how to speak.
Believe it or not, we can even “train” ourselves to have a relaxation response using music. Anything that “lights up” our brain leads to more connectivity that can last for weeks. This phenomenon is called Long Term Potentiation, and it’s what helps us solidify a learned behavior. One of the factors that ensure this Long Term Potentiation happens is having the presence of Dopamine. You know, the feel-good neurotransmitter that just so happens to be released when we have music we enjoy! So in essence, pairing music you enjoy with a relaxation experience causes the Dopamine to be released during both activities. With repetition, your brain learns that relaxation is good and it becomes a learned behavior. Have you ever heard the phrase, “Neurons that fire together, wire together?” Well, that’s exactly what’s happening here. Training your brain to relax using music. Pretty cool, huh?
People often ask me what the most ‘relaxing’ kind of music is. I always answer with, whatever you enjoy! To give more detail, you can start by looking at both tempo and tone. Studies have shown that music close to 60 beats per minute is found to be relaxing by many. Think, the same speed as the second hand of a clock. You can also think about the tone of the music you’re listening to. Do you like piano? Guitar? Drums? If you’re still curious, a study by the British Academy of Sound Therapy actually created a song with the group Marconi Union to be what they have described as “the most relaxing song ever produced”; a claim they back by their scientific study you can read online. The song is called “Weightless”. It’s eight minutes long and begins at a tempo of 60 beats per minute and gradually slows to 50 beats per minute by the end to help ease the listener into a state of relaxation.
Whether you try developing your own music relaxation practice or not, I hope you continue to turn to music. Listen to it, share it, use it, feel connected through it. We need music now more than ever, even our brains know it! There’s just something about music.