Your Brain on Music

Published on May 8th, 2017

You hear it every day, through multiple mediums, in a variety of volumes. Sometimes your attention is consumed by its blaring presence; other times it’s a familiar friend gently humming in the background of elevators, cafés and hotel lobbies. Sometimes you seek it out – drive up the decibels because it reminds you of a moment you can’t otherwise reach, a person you can’t otherwise touch. When it’s too heavy, it can shake you. When it’s too moody, it can bring you to tears. But sometimes, the right words, to the right tune, at the right time, can change absolutely everything.

Music, in all its iterations, exists beyond the files stored inside of a dust-ridden first-generation iPod or the soundtrack of a worn-out prom montage. The songs you listen to and the stories they tell have the power to rewire your neurons: they can transcend their entertainment value to change your mood, assuage your body’s pains, even bring back memories you thought were buried in the past. According to Dr. Kimberly Sena Moore, an assistant professor at Frost School of Music’s Music Therapy program, music has medicinal properties that make music therapy a viable alternative for someone who isn’t responding to more conventional treatments. Where invasive procedures and chemical agents have failed, sounds arranged rhythmically can be all the medicine needed.

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“Our brains and bodies respond cognitively, physically and emotionally to music,” Sena Moore said. “So in essence what music therapists do is capitalize on this natural connection in an intentional, therapeutic way.”

Sena Moore uses this concept to treat people stricken with inflexible symptoms. Her day-to-day agenda ranges from helping a child on the autism spectrum learn how to communicate to helping someone who had a stroke relearn how to walk. She uses music – singing and playing the guitar, piano, harp or flute – and musical experiences to target non-musical treatment goals. Her drug of choice: song, administered aurally.

Music’s capacity for physical and mental healing is not a novel concept. In ancient Greece, Plato and Aristotle wrote that music has the potential to help people recover from emotional distress. Ancient Egyptians saw chant therapies as an integral part of the recovery process. The healing properties of music can be channeled to momentarily brighten a dark mood, or into an extended process that eases the symptoms of a particular disease.

Music, because of its structure and catchiness, and sometimes, because of the emotions we ascribe to it, is capable of enduring in the neural patchwork of the brain for an entire lifetime, persisting in spite of advanced age or brain damage. Our recollections of music can have an infinite shelf life. Mere exposure to a certain sound or song can draw out memories that had been dormant for decades and restore abilities feared to have been long-lost. Dan Cohen, the founder of the nonprofit organization Music & Memory, applied this idea to patients with advanced Alzheimer’s and dementia, as shown in the documentary “Alive Inside,” which captured the effects of music on patients such as 92-year-old dementia-stricken Henry.

At first Henry sits inert, staring down at his palms, a wall up over his eyes. He can’t seem to follow the syntax of a sentence, letting a subject-verb-object dissolve into a stuttered subject or an incoherent object. A nurse walks up with a pair of headphones and slowly places them on his ears. As soon as the vibrations of Cab Calloway’s voice seize his eardrums, Henry starts to dance. His eyes light up, a wave of euphoria enraptures him, and he moves his hands – wrinkled and withered from the currents of time, frozen in place right beforehand ­– around in his wheelchair rapidly. He sings Calloway’s lyrics with the same velvety voice that couldn’t respond to a yes or no question a minute earlier. Undeterred by one of the harshest diagnoses imaginable, Henry begins to speak again.

“It [music] gives me the feeling of love, of romance. I figure right now the world needs to come into music,” he said. “You’ve got beautiful music here.”

Henry is reawakened and reanimated – almost as if he’s being brought back to life. The songs he had an affinity for helped bridge the gap between his past and present, something Sena Moore has witnessed many times. She says that music has a strong connection to the deeper structures of our brain and can be a part of someone’s identity.

“It’s that primitive connection between our auditory system and our emotional memory systems that music therapists tap into to provide these opportunities,” Sena Moore said. “Even the other day, a client was listening to music while her husband was there, and when a song started playing she looked at him and said ‘Well, shall we dance?’”

For Moore and other specialists, music is not just a tool to treat cognitive disorders. Our network of temporal and emotional memories can be leveraged to uncover the root of unhealthy patterns and help people break free from self-sabotaging behaviors.

“Music can be helpful for learning healthy and adaptive emotional competence; to teach self-regulation of emotion and practice,” she said.

Sena Moore applies this concept to aiding hospitalized clients cope with their anxiety, pain and any sense of isolation. With a quick reconnaissance of the objects scattered in the room as well as the demeanor of the patient, Moore discerns the music the patient will respond best to. She then sings a song from a genre that the patient will like, redirecting his/her attention from their present ailment. One singular experience for Sena Moore was entering a hospital room filled with a woman battling cancer and her family. Up until that moment, the family hadn’t been able to find a platform for emotional release. Afterwards, the woman’s father thanked Sena Moore for the impact she had on their family; for providing that necessary outlet for catharsis and bonding. A few weeks later the woman died, and Sena Moore was invited to sing at her funeral, a performance she will never forget.

“You look at the role of music across the life span, and it helps people bond,” she said. “Music is one of the few types of stimuli where you can have a shared emotional experience without a lot of work – it’s something that can just happen.”

words_asmae fahmy. photo_sidney sherman. 

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