Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Power of Music

[This article, written by Listen for Life Founder Donna Stoering, was first published on October 18, 2011 at Reproduced with permission.]

For centuries we have intuitively recognized that certain sounds, intervals, rhythms, pitch combinations, and harmonic vibrations could all be deliberately used to affect the moods of individuals or the emotional tone of entire crowds. But more recently, we have developed the scientific instrumentation to accurately measure reactions in different regions of the brain when a variety of musical elements or pieces are heard – not even listened to, intentionally – just “heard” in the surrounding sound that is subconsciously but constantly absorbed by any human being.
It has been shown, for example, that if we want to de-stress and lower our cortisol levels, we can deliberately play very melodic, horizontal (i.e. single-instrument) pieces in a slower, steady pulse, and this sends direct messages to the part of our brain that affects cortisol levels, lowering them by up to double digits in every study done.


Again, all of this knowledge can be negatively or positively used ... some experts suggest that certain contemporary pop song composers are deliberately causing depression in pre-teen girls by using specific harmonies and melodic patterns that are known to cause this mood change in the brain: the girls become emotionally attached to the music (because they are down), therefore listen to it even more as it expresses their feelings, and therefore the record labels/media distributors make even more money on repeated downloads or song purchases.
All parents want to help their children. The one simple (and free!) thing that will make the biggest difference for our children is to proactively provide them with specific music listening experiences to meet specific needs or goals.
  • For example, research has proven that if one is studying a foreign language, putting on some faster-paced pieces by Bach in the background will greatly increase receptivity in the part of the brain that learns languages.
  • While students of any age are studying/preparing for a test, the faster movements by Vivaldi or Mozart work best in stimulating speed of thought and retention of information.
  • There have been many different tests carried out about optimal conditions for studying/memorizing, whether it is best to have no music, classical music, or any other kinds of music and the results showed repeatedly that the mathematical relationships in particular Western classical music definitely work best to stimulate learning and retention in several brain regions. The results for “other” kinds of music or no music at all, were neutral.
  • Obviously we can’t just take control of our childrens’ iPods and insist that they listen to one thing or forbid them to listen to something else. At Listen for Life we believe the solution lies in offering them a healthy but adventurous alternative and that is why we have produced the Travels with Music collection, with six hours of interactive content that offers an experience of the world, with the master musicians of those countries as the tour guides. 300 short music videos from around the world are integrated with four computer games, audio files, informational text, and links to the world-renowned artists who are all the acknowledged representatives of their cultures. This program works well for music listeners aged 4-94 and provides a fun way to re-acquaint ourselves or our families with our own musical geneology and heritage.
And that “geneology” IS important! Music therapists around the world – and even volunteers in most nursing homes – know that non-responsive injured or elderly will suddenly come to life if they hear the songs that may have played when they were in the womb or as a young person growing up, whatever the circumstance.


  • All tests have shown conclusively that babies do absolutely respond to music and rhythm while in the womb, and it is important to play calm, soothing music of any style, or classical music of any culture, when placing headphones on a pregnant belly, because music that is rhythmically “jerky” such as jazz, or riddled with angst or tense higher frequencies like, say, heavy metal, visually caused babies to become jerky, hyperactive, or rigid with tension. The same would possibly apply when choosing whether or not to attend a live concert while pregnant. Depending on the volume and mood of the music, the consequences would vary. It is absolutely wonderful, if not crucial, to listen to as much music as possible while pregnant, for the emotional and physical health of the mother (and father!) and for the goal of helping to nurture any level of musicality in the unborn child.
  • I know this from personal experience – when I was pregnant with my first child, I was performing piano concerts right up until the 9th month, and on this one particular piano concerto by Schumann, it became highly uncomfortable trying to stay on the piano bench because the baby would kick (usually low enough to hit my bladder) on every single downbeat that I played! About 4-5 months after the baby daughter was born, I was scheduled to perform that same Schumann piece again, so returned to the piano for rehearsals and I was astonished to notice that every single time I played that particular piece, she would stop absolutely still in her swing or playpen nearby, look wide eyed around the room, and then start bouncing and kicking in exactly the same rhythm with an enormous smile of recognition and joy on her face. (She went on to sing the title female role in Jesus Christ Superstar in England when she was 14, but is now a (very rhythmical) horse jumper and professional equestrian who is married to a composer and is passionate about all sorts of world music).
  • One does not have to be a professional musician to give the benefits and gifts of music to your children. All of us can sing. Babies respond to singing from the human voice more than to any other instrument – I have found that singing quite softly while making eye contact (and fairly near their faces) elicits the strongest and most alert response. Sometimes they love being bounced rhythmically while we sing something lively to them. And we all know that it puts most of them to sleep quite well if we are patient and they are not tooooo distraught.
In general we all need to remember that music has tremendous power and it is a tool we have been given for communication and enrichment. Just as people today understand that ‘we are what we eat” and have therefore become much more aware of the nutrition value (or lack of it) for each food they ingest, similarly music is nutrition for our mind and our soul – and yes, we are what we listen to.

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