Music may be the world’s greatest medicine. From infants to centenarians, people love music and the way it makes them feel good. In tribute to its universal qualities, Hans Christian Andersen said, “Where words fail, music speaks.”
Even without lyrics, songs certainly convey feelings. Among healthy people, researchers have shown that across cultural divides, people can readily place vastly different types of music into emotional categories ranging from sad to heroic, annoying to beautiful, and desirous to indignant.
But the miracle of music is in its healing qualities. Scientists studying people with brain injuries and neurological conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are making remarkable discoveries.
Music, for example, can improve the gait of people relearning to walk after a brain injury. Listening to music has also been shown to reduce perceptions of pain. People who have lost the ability to communicate due to severe brain damage can regain function by singing the words.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s typically become evident when the part of the brain involved in memory starts to fail. This gradually erodes the ability to manage everyday life independently. Loss of the sense of identity is confusing for the patient and heartbreaking for family and loved ones.
But playing music lights up wide networks in the brain including areas responsible for motor actions, emotions, and creativity. Researchers are studying how music can help treat Alzheimer’s disease.
Michael Thaut, director of the University of Toronto’s Music and Health Science Research Collaboratory, has studied patients with early Alzheimer’s disease who listen to personally meaningful music.
He identified “autobiographically relevant, long-known music” – wedding songs, for example, or favourite records from teenage years – and played these songs repeatedly to test subjects.
Whether the participants in the research were accomplished musicians or non-musicians, the results were similar: brain function improved.
Ground-breaking research by Dr. Lola Cuddy of Queen’s University demonstrating that patients with Alzheimer’s disease have an ability to recognize music and display musical memory has informed the development of musical therapy programs as simple as creating a familiar playlist for people with dementia.
What’s going on in the brain? It appears that familiar music stimulates activity in the brain that leads to rewiring new circuits that bypass damaged regions and re-establish connections to memories.
“Music is an access key to your memory, your pre-frontal cortex,” Thaut said. For those hoping to prevent dementia, he said, “It’s simple: keep listening to the music that you’ve loved all your life. Your all-time favourite songs, those that are especially meaningful to you. Make that your brain gym.”
Experts disagree on whether it is better to listen to familiar music or new music. While familiar music elicits happiness, some experts suggest that listening to the grandchildren’s music might help the brain create and reinforce additional neural pathways. On this, the jury is out.
What is certain is that music does what no pill can do. Within seconds of exposure, and for sustained periods, it heals the mind.
More good news, it’s not just the brain that benefits from music. Music can reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, ease pain, improve sleep, boost mood, and elevate alertness. But there is something remarkable about music that helps stow away and later retrieve deeply valued information and connections.
Shelley, the English Romantic poet, who tragically lived only to 29 years, wrote, “Music, when soft voices die, vibrates in the memory.” Today’s researchers have proven him right.
And what sweeter medicine than to turn on the music and enjoy the journey through happy memories while also exercising the mind.
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