Even before human beings spoke, we communicated through music. As infants, we were soothed to sleep by a lullaby. Music illustrated our evenings at camp, our first dance as a couple, our camaraderie with friends or teammates — all of our life’s celebrations as well as its sorrows.
And now, smack dab in the middle of the most uncertain time, music continues to be our universal calm in the storm.
When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times, and to the latest. — Henry David Thoreau
In Italy, sheltered-in-place apartment residents have gathered on balconies to serenade each other through song or dance. A residential block in Plano, Texas, invited neighbors to go outdoors at 7 p.m. on Tuesday evenings to sing, to hum along, or to play “God Bless America” on an instrument. In California, musician Adam Chester has begun front-yard concerts every Saturday for his neighbors and for anyone else who happens to drive by.
Although ticketed, in-person musical concerts have been placed on hold, orchestras such as The Texas Winds and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra know that music is imperative to life, and thus continue to offer concerts online. The Dallas Observer offers lists of streamed concerts for the upcoming week.
Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything. — Plato
Kathryn MacDonell of Texas Health isn’t surprised by all this in the slightest. Music is especially needed, she says, “when the world feels sideways and our lives are turned upside down.”
“The brain has a music room and it’s a central part of our experience,” says MacDonell, the Geriatric Program Manager and NICHE Coordinator – Dementia Support at Texas Health Dallas. “Music can be the calm in a stormy nervous system. When we respond with strong emotions to sad, beautiful music, it releases energy and often tears.”
Tears are cleansing. Music is cleansing. MacDonell calls music “psychological first aid, which allows us to feel more deeply those things we can’t or aren’t allowed to vocalize.”
Creating or listening to music releases endorphins, the feel-good neurochemical associated with well-being and stress reduction, she says. Similarly, music helps to regulate sleep and mitigate depression by releasing melatonin and serotonin.
“Listening, singing and playing induce pleasure that alters brain chemistry,” MacDonell says. “It involves the hippocampus, which deals with memory. Singing lessons increase endorphins and oxytocin, which increase trust and social bonds. Playing music modulates levels of dopamine, the feel-good chemical, which leads to elevated mood and healthier immune system.”
Wait! There’s more!
“Moving to music burns off excess energy that could be toxic to our bodies,” she says.
In his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, the late neuroscientist Oliver Sacks wrote about the transformative power of music. Study after study has shown the ability of music to not merely make us feel better emotionally but to reduce stress, to aid memory, to reduce pain.
“Music is a powerful prescription for healing,” MacDonell says. “It enhances the quality of life for kids with autism, adults with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. It helps us learn grammar and language after a stroke.”
Listening is powerful, but learning to play an instrument kicks your brain into gear even more. “It engages auditory, visual and motor skills like a full-body workout,” she says.
If you don’t have access to an instrument, there are other ways you can make the most out of music. Here are three MacDonell suggests:
Move to the music. Clap your hands, tap your toes, snap your fingers. Dance, march, do the Hokey Pokey.
Sing to the music. Do it at the top of your lungs in the shower, in the living room, in your car.
Paint to the music. “Let brush strokes and color echo what you hear and feel,” she says.
“Music,” MacDonell says, “is an emotional communication which can calm, energize, organize and inspire us.”