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Why Music Matters: Beyond Mental and Emotional Health

By Staff | May 25, 2012

Last week we had the privilege of hosting Dr. Phil Maffetone to our small town. Phil has authored more than 20 books on health and I place him on the short list of the true shamans of wellness. Phil spoke of many things to our audience at the Shepherdstown Opera House, a site which he and musical/wellness partner Dr. Coralee Thompson loved. One area specifically I found interesting was the relationship of music to mental and physical well being. If you missed the event, Phil shares this with you.

Dr. Phil Maffetone

The simplest of reasons why we love music is because how nature built our brains millions of year ago. The body is neurologically “nourished” by music, much like a natural diet builds one’s health.

Biologists have long known the importance of music’s foundation in human health. It has played a key role in our species rising to dominance. In particular, and what separates humans from other animals, our large and highly functional emotional brain has developed with the help of complex music. Some of the earliest musical instruments, such as the simple flute, are over 30,000 years old.

Not only did the human brain have music long before traditional language, it was the universal language, one that all animals share. And neurologists and psychologists know that music is one of the few things-perhaps the only one-that can stimulate all parts of a human’s complex brain.

Clinicians in all fields of healthcare have paid attention too. Beginning about 5,000 years ago, music came forth as a potent therapy for treatment of illness and disease, and prevention. Music therapy helps not just the brain, but immunity, muscles, digestion, stress and many other bodily functions as well.

Music’s importance with human evolution is evident in healthy infants, who, while lacking the ability to speak, already have built-in musical abilities. They immediately respond to music long before they learn to develop language and other physical and mental skills.

But sadly, with many people today, music has died. Along with it, the powerful, natural therapy it provokes has crumbled, and our mental and emotional condition adversely affected.

Mental and Emotional Health

We’re all familiar with physical and chemical health, our muscles and bones, and hormones and nutrients, respectively, but mental and emotional health is more obscure. While millions of people are diagnosed with some named condition of the brain, many millions more are also afflicted with reductions in quality of life due to mental and emotional problems too vague for a diagnosis.

Let’s define these brain states. Mental and emotional health is associated with our behavior. The mental state is also referred to as cognition-how we sense the world, our perceptions, and our ability to learn and make decisions. Emotions are associated with pain, in particular. Not just heartbreak and feelings of depression, but physical pain too, which is all sensed in our brain. Emotions show themselves as mood, anxiety and depression.

Our mental and or emotional condition can also trigger significant stress, disturbing hormones that can wreck our physical and chemical health.

For many people, music is a liberator, reducing stress hormones and helping their mental and emotional brain. But as life gets too busy, music leaves the lives of many people, and with it the potential power of therapy and enjoyment. Instead of soothing harmony and melodies of music worth listening to, all that is left is noise and confusion, sounds without any real meaning and substance.

Music and Emotions

Wiebke Trost and colleagues at the Department of Neuroscience, University of Geneva, Switzerland, in their study “Mapping Aesthetic Musical Emotions in the Brain” (2011), revealed for the first time the neural architecture underlying the complex ”aesthetic” emotions induced by music. They state that, “music evokes complex emotions beyond pleasant/unpleasant or happy/sad dichotomies usually investigated in neuroscience.” They demonstrate that the unique richness of music stimulates emotions that include reward. This is an important discovery, and a powerful effect for most people. The reward centers of the brain are associated with addiction, not just to drugs, including common ones such as caffeine, and especially to sugar. Music may become a positive addiction replacing negative habits.

In addition, music can awaken one’s memory, and it stimulates self-reflection, and sensorimotor processes-factors that incorporate brain-body relationships including muscle function.

Research shows that musical emotions go far beyond all other emotions triggered by all other stimuli. One reason is that music enlists the activity of the whole brain-a sort of holistic therapy. Likewise, memory, which perks up to the sound of music, also occurs everywhere in the brain. There’s neither a memory or music “center”; rather, both exist throughout the brain. So all one’s senses, not just auditory, are stimulated by music, from vision and vibratory to bodily sensation and higher levels of consciousness.

In addition, new research points to a crucial involvement of brain systems that are not primarily ”emotional” areas, including motor pathways-the nerve connections between the brain and muscles throughout the body. Balanced muscle function allows one to move more efficiently, balance properly, avoid physical injuries, and perform better in sports.

Music Deficiency

Amusica is a spectrum disorder-from subtle imbalances to full-blown pathologies-where individuals have a “disconnect” in their nervous systems. In mild forms, a person may be unable to relate to music, be unable to ascertain words in songs, or just not enjoy it, while in more severe cases along the spectrum music can trigger extreme, unhealthy emotions. To others, music may even be painful.

With many, amusica results in not making music part of life. This could be due to an uncomfortable feeling associated with it, or that today’s fast-paced world with its emphasis on being connected all day and all night, has taken over the places in the brain that would normally benefit from and create, and relate, to music. We are so busy keeping up, that music is neglected. And if music does have a role, it’s either as a minor one or as ” background.”

Junk music is as bad as junk food. Commercialization of music exists on all fronts. We are assaulted by it when we turn on the radio, step in an elevator, go shopping, or hoping to find new musical groups worth our attention. Many of today’s best-selling bands appear to have been solely based on a music producer’s knowledge of demographics and marketing.

What To Do

Make healthy music a regular part of your life. Buy or borrow music CDs, or get those old vinyl albums out of storage and fire up your turntable. It’s important to listen on higher rather than poor quality speakers or headphones. Find out which songs, artists and musical genre you like most-folk, country, rock, blues, jazzit’s nearly endless, and today there are many sounds that are a blend of many types. Classical music is also a great choice.

Listen in the car, but spend some relaxed time only listening to music, not just as background sound. Let the music take you away, let it do its thing-heal and help your brain and body be younger on a physical, chemical and mental emotional level.

More articles by Dr. Maffetone on www.philmaffetone.com