Music has been in my life since infancy when I used to listen to my Mum playing the piano, and join in the songs at church with great gusto. I was deaf when I was little and needed surgery to improve my hearing. After my hearing was better Mum thought it would be useful for me to learn an musical instrument to help me focus and improve my ability to listen. I started playing the piano when I was five. My feelings about that were mixed – I liked the piano but I was pretty scared of the elderly nun that used to teach me. I remember having to be bribed with sweets to go to my lessons.
When I was a bit older I started playing the ‘cello at school. I loved the ‘cello a whole lot more than the piano. It made a beautiful deep, full sound. The only issue was it was very big and I was little. My Mum adapted an old shopping trolley so I could pull it to school and back. It got worse when we moved to a different town and I had to travel from one school to another for lessons negotiating the stairs on a double-decker bus every Wednesday afternoon. However I still loved it and as I got better I joined an orchestra which I also loved.
We moved again when I was a teenager to a small town with no ‘cello teacher. We had grand plans that I’d make the 8 hour round trip on the bus up to Glasgow every month or so to keep it up. Of course in reality that didn’t happen. I was in the midst of my exams, and I was also fifteen and had “better” things to do with my free time. The ‘cello was forgotten about and my music now came from the radio and the cassettes I saved up for and bought in Woolworths.
The cassettes became CDS, the CDs played nursery rhymes and childrens songs when my kids were little. Then it all sort of got forgotten about. The CD player broke and wasn’t replaced, the CDs were sold. Spotify was downloaded but not used nearly as much- all these fiddly connections with bluetooth speakers. We were too tired and busy to think about music at home and I’m not one of these people who can work with music on in the background. The ‘cello that my long-gone Granny bought for me resides in the attic, with it’s 1980’s stickers on the case saying “Fair Pay to the Ambulance Men”. The bow has somehow snapped but the cello is intact, if dusty.
Funnily enough my little girl got an note home from school last week asking her if she was interested in being put forward for an assessment for violin or ‘cello lessons. I was waxing lyrical about the ‘cello and asked her why she didn’t want to consider it. She was quite clear in her response “Mum, are you crazy? – there’s no way I’m carrying that thing up and down the road to after-school”. To be fair, she has a point.
Reading up all the benefits of listening, playing or just having music in your life to write this blog has really been quite eye-opening.
When you think about it music, it’s amazing – it’s present in every culture throughout the world in innumerable different forms. It has the power to regulate our emotions -it makes us feel happy or sad, relaxed or invigorated. It gives us pleasure. It can provide us with comfort. It helps us focus but at the same time it can distract us. It can be something that we associate with solitude as we plug ourselves into our earphones, or it can be something we share with others.
Music has been shown to benefit brain development in childhood. Early exposure to music listening, rhythm and music making has been associated with increased pre-verbal communication in babies, and better speech and reading skills.
It’s also great way of maintaining the aging brain because of all the areas of the brain that music activates and involves.
Music-making connects thinking, listening, sensory and motor areas of the brain. It’s really complex – reading music and understanding it, listening to it, playing an instrument, interacting and co-ordinating with other musicians. We know that musicians brains appear different on brain scans. The same applies to scans of the developing brains of children learning an instrument relative to those who are not.
Individuals have different responses to different kinds of music. For instance introverts seem to be more distracted by background music then extroverts. Having said that, generally speaking, slower speed, soothing music tends to calm us, whereas stimulating music does the opposite. It’s thought that this may be because our brain relates it to similar noises in the environment. Shriller high-pitched noises may mimic alarm calls in nature whereas relaxing music may be more akin to soothing natural sounds like water or maternal animal noises.
Music can have a major impact on our emotions. It can produce feelings of pleasure and stimulate the reward centres in our brains.
So how can including music in our lives be of benefit?
It can help you sleep. Surveys have shown that a large proportion of people, particularly younger people, use a variety of types of music to help them sleep. Reasons for using music include it’s relaxing effects helping to induce physical and mental relaxation, using it as part of a bedtime routine and using it either to block out environmental noise or internal thoughts that may prevent sleep.
Relaxing music can help with stress. This has been shown to be the case in many areas of life including work and school related stress, stress relating to medical procedures and illness. It has been shown to reduce levels of stress hormones, reduce blood pressure and slow down heart rate.
Music can be an important part of social interactions. From taking your tiny baby to sing nursery rhymes at the local library with other new parents, to listening to music in the pub. From making music with a group of friends, to tea-dances, to sing-along’s in a care home. It can bring people together.
Music in health care
Music therapy techniques are used clinically in many areas of medicine throughout all age-groups. They are used to support emotional and social needs, to help with communication and in many other ways.
Music evokes strong emotions. It’s thought this can lead to the formation of memories related to the episode associated with that particular music. Even people with severe dementia can enjoy music. It may help calm them, and help them remember episodes from the past.
Listening to music everyday has been shown to improve brain function and reduce depression after a stroke. Interestingly listening to music seemed to be more beneficial then listening to audio books.
Studies have looked at the use of music during some medical procedures and have suggested it may help to reduce anxiety, along with the amount of sedation and pain-killers required. This is thought to be due to it’s distracting and relaxing effect.
Studies have also found music to be helpful in chronic pain and the depressive symptoms that can be associated with it. There has been an association with listening to music and a reduction in anxiety, pain and fatigue in patients undergoing cancer treatment. It’s also been found to have a small impact on blood pressure and heart rate in patients with heart disease.
No-one is suggesting for a moment that music can cure disease – but it may be an easy an inexpensive way of helping improve symptoms or even of making living with illness or pain a little bit easier.
I think the next small change for me is making a proper effort to learn how to use the music system in my house so that I can enjoy it again. I’ll need to enlist the help of the children!