How Music Affects Your Life

We hear a lot today about the power of music, but let’s stop and ask the questions, what exactly does music do for you?  And, what evidence is there that music is all that powerful?  Whether you are involved in a drum circle, singing in a choir (or the shower), performing music professionally, tapping along to music on the radio, taking organ lessons, or using music to help other people heal, I believe that you are profoundly influenced by music.

So let’s examine exactly HOW music benefits us, along with some proof of that benefit.  The evidence I offer ranges from the testimony of a Native American Elder to the research results of Contemporary Neuroscientists.  All are worth considering.  What can music making do for you?

  1. Unify You With History and With Each Other.   “Since the beginning of civilization, drums were one of the main universal signals for calling people together in good ways. They were and are  humanity’s common pulse. In other words, drums do not know about race, racism, jealousy, hate, resentment, greed, language, genders, gender choice, human diversity. What they do know is the magic of inclusivity and the joyful sound of one heart beating.”   (Wilwilaask, All my Relations).  When you perform music with other people, you become part of a common rhythm and can celebrate the unity of our diverse human race.
  2. Increase Your Immunity and Cancer-Fighting Capacity.   A study by Barry Bittman, MD and his associates found that one session of therapeutic drumming significantly strengthened the immune system and increased the activity level of cancer-fighting T-cells.(Barry Bittman, MD, et al., 2001,  Alternative Therapies Health Medicine, Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 38-47).
  3. Improve Your Mood, Reduce Burnout, and Improve Your Genome Functioning.  Dr. Bittman’s research also demonstrated that making music improved moods and reduced burnout in workers and students. The genome is an organism’s complete set of DNA.  All human cells (except for mature red blood cells) contain a complete genome.  According the Dr. Bittman, “The genome is a personal blueprint that serves as the instruction book for our bodies.”  There are 45 genomic markers associated with stress.  They can be viewed as “switches that literally turn on the production of specific biological substances within the body.” His study showed that making music changed 19 of the 45 stress genomes in a positive direction.   (Barry Bittman, MD, et al., 2005, Medical Science Monitor, Vol. 11, No.2, pp. 31-40).
  4. Improve Your Emotions and Thinking Flexibility.  In research that I conducted with Dr. Michael Thaut, we found that one session of music therapy improved mood and flexible thinking.  (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2009, Vol 1169, pp. 406-416).
  5. Provide a Workout for Your Entire Brain.  Music is not just a right-brain activity, but extensively involves systems throughout the brain, both left and right hemispheres.  (Daniel Levitin, Ph.D. 2006, This is your brain on music:  The science of a human obsession.  New York:  Penguin Books).
  6. Provide Increased Power to Your Brain.  First, music gives immediate stimulation and structure to your brain so that your mental operations can become more reliable and predictable.  Next, music introduces timing, grouping, and synchronization so that your brain can be better organized.  In addition, music stimulates shared or parallel brain systems, so that the part of your brain that is working gets help from other areas.  Your brain becomes super charged to accomplish the task at hand.  Finally, music provides an atmosphere that arouses emotion and motivation.  Music helps you feel good and stimulates the energy you need to follow through (Michael Thaut, Ph.D. [2005]. Rhythm, music, and the brain: Scientific foundations and clinical applications.  New York:  Routledge).

I hope that by now you are convinced that music is powerful, that it can improve your life, and that you can use more music.  Even if you are already making music, consider ways to make it even more powerful for you.  As a musician, I practice piano, trumpet, and voice every day, and perform in public an average of three times a week.  As a clinician, I lead drum circles and other music-related groups an average of twice a week.  However, lately I began enjoying music that is intended just for me.  I look forward to time I spend alone with my drum, creating special rhythms that relax and inspire me.  What aspects of music will make your life even greater?

Next post:  I will share the personal experiment that I have been conducting for the past year to improve my mental abilities.

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Music’s Power in Your Brain

Lately there have been many media features about the strong influence of music.  We have marveled at the fabulous progress Congresswoman “Gabby” Giffords has made since being shot in the head in January of 2011.  Much of her recovery has been spurred on by music therapy.  I agree that music is powerful.  I will briefly introduce you to the scientific research on the power of music for your mind and will suggest some ways you can use music to improve your mental abilities.

We used to think that music was only a “right-brain” activity.  Daniel Levitin, neuroscientist, researcher, sound engineer, record producer, and musician, tells us that “Musical activity involves nearly every region of the brain that we know about, and nearly every neural subsystem.”  (This Is Your Brain On Music, 2006).

Dr. Michael Thaut, music therapist, researcher, neuroscientist, and a friend of mine,  has conducted research on music and the neurological system for more than 20 years.  He reports that there are four basic influences that music has on the brain (Rhythm, Music & The Brain, 2005).  First, music energizes your brain, making it more active for what you want to accomplish.  For example, if you love country music and want to clean the kitchen quickly, you can put on your favorite jumpy country song and breeze through the job at hand.  Second, Dr. Thaut has found that music brings timing and grouping to your thoughts, so that your brain can be better organized.  Third, music recruits other areas of your brain to help work on the task at hand, increasing your brain power dramatically.  Finally, your emotions and motivation are enhanced by music, helping you feel happier, more relaxed, or more energized.  Thus we know that music has a powerful effect on our minds.

Think for a moment about the music in your life.  Do you really use it systematically, or is music a random happening that comes from the radio in your car, the television that you watch, or the speakers in the stores where you shop?  Do you pay close attention to what each piece of music is doing to you, or are you going along unaware of your reactions?  Below are some suggestions that will help you benefit more from music.

First, are you a musician?  If you are currently engaged in making music, then you are providing a full-brain workout for yourself every time you produce a note.  If you are a former musician and still have your instrument, consider dusting it off and re-establishing those rich connections that only music can make in your brain.

Whether you are a music maker or listener, take a look at the music you have available right now.  You may have records, 8-tracks, cassette tapes, CDs, MP3s, Sirrius, music channels on your TV, or music tracks on your computer and smart phone.  Organize your songs so that they are easy to use when you need them.  I keep several playlists of music on my phone, so I can access and enjoy them any time.

After you’ve organized your music, sit down and listen to a sampling of your songs.  Close your eyes, listen to a song, and write down how the song makes you feel:  energized, lazy, sexy, relaxed, etc.  Also, rate how well you enjoy each song on a 10-point scale.  Research has shown that music we like will have a greater influence on us.

Finally, begin to use music more systematically in your life.  Use your personal music to make your life more productive, relaxing, or whatever you desire.  Then pay close attention to the music you hear when you are away from home.  If you don’t like how the music is influencing you in a store, consider leaving and going where the music is better.  If you are bothered by the music on a TV show, turn it off or go to another channel.

Remember, the power of music is there for you.  Try it on and notice how great it feels!

Next time: The therapeutic effects of group drumming