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Stolen: The healing powers of music

by Dr. Joanne Stolen

Human societies have been in the making for at least 50,000 years. Why did human cultures develop the capacity to enjoy and perform music? Music affects our emotional response, and some music creates social cohesion, strengthening group bonds like school pep songs or military marches. Particular notes elicit the same emotions from most people, regardless of culture. Some sequences of notes are happy, some are sad. A major third (like Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”) sounds happy; a minor third (as in the dark first movements of Mahler’s Fifth) provokes feelings of sadness and even doom. Selections of Celtic, Native American, as well as music containing loud drums or flute are soothing. Whenever the proper sounds were experienced, a right/left brain hemisphere synchronization occurs. It turns out the entire human energetic system is extremely influenced by musical sounds. Human development prepares everyone to be a music-maker and music-lover – at a basic, but not necessarily professional, level. This capacity for music includes the potential for learning to: sing, play simple instruments, move to music, remember music, and find meaning and pleasure in musical experience

Even babies and some animals – such as birds, whales and monkeys – have a built-in sense of tone and rhythm. Music can help explain how the brain processes sound waves that induce people to tap their toes, and break out in song and dance. According to a brain scientist: “Music provides a panoramic window through which we can examine the neural organization of complex behaviors that are at the core of human nature.” Apparently the human brain has a special network of cells for music, separate from, but overlapping with the areas that handle language. This network has distinct subsystems for melody and for rhythm. Students who take music lessons have improved IQ levels, and show improvement in nonmusical abilities as well. Studies have shown that listening to music composed by Mozart produces a short-term improvement in tasks that use spatial abilities. Studies of brain circulation have also shown that people listening to Mozart have more activity in certain areas of the brain.

Music has been used in medicine for thousands of years. Ancient Greek philosophers believed music could heal both the body and the soul, and Native Americans have used singing and chanting as part of their healing rituals for millennia. Music therapy in the U.S. began in World War II, when U.S. Veterans Administration hospitals began to use music to help treat soldiers suffering from shell shock. The first music therapy degree was established by Michigan State University In 1944, and today more than 70 colleges and universities have degree programs approved by the American Music Therapy Association. Music therapy is based on the concept that everyone can respond to music, even the sick or disabled. Music has also been used in cancer therapy, and rhythmical auditory stimulation in combination with traditional gait therapy improved the ability of stroke patients to walk. Combining music with relaxation therapy was more effective than doing relaxation therapy alone. Among the first stress-fighting changes that take place when we hear a tune is an increase in deep breathing.

A wonderful music therapist, Deforia Lane will be coming to talk to, and interact with, the young musicians of the National Repertory Orchestra July 25. Several groups of musicians will be playing for patients at the hospital. I had the privilege of hearing her talk, and accompanying her and some of the musicians to St. Anthony’s Hospital last year. We saw an amazing revival of a particular patient, after she heard a selection of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto. She perked up dramatically!

Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is a former professor of microbiology from Rutgers now teaching classes at CMC. Her scientific interests are in emerging infectious diseases and environmental pollution.


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