Music to the mind – activating human potential

Steven Michaëlis

(Article in the October 2009 issue of Beyin Gücü)

Music has been around for a long time. A simple flute made from bone was used by Neanderthal man more than 40,000 years ago and clay tablets found in Syria depict the score of 4,000 year old songs. But we do not have to go back that far for evidence that music is an integral part of the human experience. A foetus in the mothers womb will start to react to sounds at just 16 weeks and in a clinical experiment Brahms Lullaby being played to premature babies six times a day for just five minutes each time resulted in faster weight gain. Babies start to sway and rock to music long before they can walk or talk and much language is learned through nursery rhymes and songs. Adults spend billions on pre-recorded and live music because it makes them feel better.

So what is it that makes music so special? We listen to music using our two ears and the signal received by our ears is send to the brain for processing. To be able to filter, comprehend and use this information the brain needs to organise all the incoming data. It will look for patterns and similarities and it will try to match these to previous experiences stored in memory. Fortunately almost all music is highly structured and organised, with only small, often predictable, variations providing the tune or melody. Music thus provides pre-organised information to the brain, which is very easily assimilated and processed. The rhythm and beats within music often mimic our breathing and heart rate. Thus music with a slow rhythm can relax us, while disc jockeys in clubs make use of the beats-per-minute to whip the audience on the dance floor into an ever-increasing frenzy.

Music is food for the brain and it can influence how we feel, learn and develop in extraordinary ways. Rather than using it randomly when we have some spare time or just feel like it, it can be used in a much more directed and purposeful way to improve emotional well-being, speed up learning or help overcome developmental difficulties.

Music for emotional well-being.

Many of us use music to create or alter our mood or emotional state. Loud and rapid music can instil energy and drive, while soft and slow music can relax us and help us to fall asleep. But there is much more to music than just that. Recent brain imaging tests by a Canadian research group have shown that when we listen to emotionally powerful music the brain releases dopamine in the reward centres of the brain, which provides us with feelings of enjoyment and motivation. More remarkably, just thinking about that music will start the release of these 'happy' neurotransmitters in the brain.

TIP: Notice which music has an emotional impact on you and at least once a week create a special time to listen to it and let your emotions flow freely. Make sure it is your special time without interruptions. It may help to buy a pair of headphones to experience the music even more. Then, at any time when you feel stressed or under pressure, simply think back to your music and you'll create your own natural and drug free rescue remedy.

Music for better learning.

That music helps learning has been known for centuries and it is no coincidence that almost all religions all over the world use music in their ceremonies, as it aids memory and recall. Georgi Lozanov, a Bulgarian psychologist, developed a new learning and teaching method, Suggestopedia, in the 1960's which makes much use of barok music for relaxation and so-called 'concert readings'. Often used for foreign language learning, the method was examined and proven to be effective by UNESCO in the 1970's. Dr. Alfred Tomatis, a French otolaryngologist, described in a book published in 1991 how certain pieces of Mozart music promote the development of the brain. The results of a scientific investigation into the 'Mozart Effect' were published in Nature in 1993, showing that listening to Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major temporarily increased IQ scores by 8 to 9 points in specific spatial-temporal tasks.

TIP: Listening to music before or during study periods may help to memorise information and simply thinking of that same music will help with recall during exams. Try barok or music by Mozart, but allow teenagers to choose their own favourite music.

Music to overcome developmental difficulties.

The same Dr. Tomatis who discovered the Mozart Effect, is also recognised as the modern day originator of sound therapy. In the early 1950's he developed an effective therapy method using altered music to treat conditions such as auditory processing disorder, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder and autism. Another French doctor, Dr. Guy Bérard, developed a similar method, Auditory Integration Training (AIT), which has found many followers in the USA. A study at the University of Illinois found significant decreases in epileptiform activity in 23 of 29 patients with epilepsy after listening for just 5 minutes to that same Mozart music. From personal experience I know that many clients report improvements in understanding, speech, balance, behaviour and emotional well-being after just two or three weeks of daily sound therapy.

TIP: Serious developmental difficulties require intervention by a specialist practitioner, but as music is a non-invasive and safe method, you can see how your child reacts by playing some Mozart music through a pair of headphones. Keep the volume very low, as many of these children are very sensitive to sounds. Carefully observe your child and if he likes listening to the music, continue for half-an-hour a day for up to two weeks. Although a very rudimentary method, some children will benefit from it.

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