by Amanda Williams, MTA, MT-BC, NMT
“Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation.”
-Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
It’s Monday morning.
Your car makes the slow crawl down the congested and crowded 401 highway. You’re running late. Even though you know that the clock on your car dashboard is five minutes fast, the visual reminder heightens your anxiety. You have a meeting in 20 minutes.
And to top it all off, you didn’t have time to get a coffee.
Talk about stressful.
However, this scenario is becoming more and more common in our fast and frenetic lives. We’ve found ourselves with too much to do, too many places to be, and too many people to please. We try to clear our mind, invoke our breathing practice, channel positive thinking – all to no avail. Today it isn’t working. Today is just too awful.
So, when time is short and our tempers even shorter, what’s a person to do? How can we care for ourselves?
My advice to you – stop, pause, and press play.
Music is part of being human
We respond to music on a deep and fundamental level – even below our level of consciousness. It can affect our bodies and brains in profound ways without us needing to do much more than sit and listen.
We all have the ability and capacity to respond to music (despite what your crusty, old music teacher might have implied in grade school). This is because music is a human invention – made by humans, for humans – and has been around for many, many moons. There are even some who suggest that humans may have been singing before they ever spoke a word. To quote Oliver Sacks from his fascinating book Musicophillia: Tales of Music and the Brain – “music is part of being human.”
And that isn’t just a nice, poetic thought.
In this book Human Universals, Donald Brown includes music as one of the cultural universals – meaning that, although the sounds, instruments and melodies may change across the world, music has been independently developed in every known human culture.
Music affects the Brain
The study of music and the brain is a growing area of research. Here are just a few of the cool things researchers are discovering about music:
- Music increases our dopamine levels – the “feel good” hormone.
- Music is intimately tied to our emotional memory. Ever have that feeling of being transported back in time when you hear a particular song?
- Music affects our breathing rate and heart rate. We listen to lullabies to sleep, and upbeat tunes to push us through that last set of squats and burpees.
As a music therapist, I have the unique and wonderful experience of bringing music to my clients, many of whom face extreme challenges to their physical, cognitive and emotional well-being. I’ve experienced first-hand the benefits of using music as an intentional tool for health and wellness.
Below are some suggestions to incorporate music into your repertoire of self-care strategies.
Five Tips for using Music for Self-Care
1. Get out of that funk by keeping an SOS playlist
Music is a powerful memory stimulant and can evoke strong emotions – you can use this nifty fact to give yourself a boost when you feel bogged down. Create a playlist of songs that have a significant and positive association for you. Maybe it includes the biggest hit when you were in high school rocking that mohawk. Or maybe its a lullaby your grandma used to sing to you. My top song is “You Make My Dreams Come True” by Hall and Oates (I walked up and down the aisle to this one).
2. Calm your nerves by listening to music with a slow tempo
Create a playlist of songs with a slower tempo. Try to find songs with a bpm (beats per minute) between 60-80 – the average resting heart rate. There are websites, such as this one, which can help you find the bpm of a song.
3. Use music to process difficult emotions
Sometimes in our lives and work, we encounter some heavy stuff: whether that be through working with clients facing extreme challenges; hearing a second-hand account of a traumatic event through a colleague; or even seeing something that deeply affects us on the news (which seems to be happening more and more these days).
I used music for self-care often when I was working on a palliative care unit. This was wonderfully rewarding work. It also left my tank empty. At the end of the day, I was often left with unresolved questions and emotions that needed processing. “Bring Him Home” from Les Misérables (the anniversary version only. Sorry, Hugh Jackman) was, undoubtedly, my top played song during this time. It kind of felt like I was talking with someone who completely understood everything I was feeling. It helped me avoid “sliming” my partner with all my difficult stories (to use Françoise’s amazing phrase), as well as tide me over until my next supervision meeting.
4. Have a transition anthem
We all need to be mindful of how we move from our busy time to our down time – else, we run the risk of never having any down time! Music can be a useful tool to help us navigate the transition from work to life by giving us an aural cue that work is done (reminiscent of the school bell), and also help us shift our frame of mind.
Being from the East Coast (and having an admittedly dry sense of humour) one of my favourite songs for this purpose is “The Idiot” by Stan Rogers. If I feel as though I’m heading home with a heavy load on my shoulders, I’ll reserve the last few minutes of my commute to mindfully listen, and mentally pack up my troubles for the day.
5. Get involved and make some music!
Hear me out.
If you’re the kind of person who has sung the “I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket” refrain your whole life, I am here to tell you – you don’t need to be a musician to play music. Don’t let our crazy, elitist, money-obsessed society convince you that music is the domain of the talented (my lest favourite word, by the way).
Music is a skill which can be learned – just like learning to tying your shoe.
And it is well documented that participating in music has positive impacts on our mood, self-esteem, cognitive functioning, memory, focus – so much so that musicians even have bigger brains.
“But wait!” you cry. “I’m too old to learn music! You can’t teach an old dog new tricks!’
It’s never too late to learn. Here’s a quote from a great study that was featured in an article from National Geographic:
Jennifer Bugos, an assistant professor of music education at the University of South Florida, Tampa, studied the impact of individual piano instruction on adults between the ages of 60 and 85. After six months, those who had received piano lessons showed more robust gains in memory, verbal fluency, the speed at which they processed information, planning ability, and other cognitive functions, compared with those who had not received lessons.
Even at 85 years old, people are benefiting from learning and playing music.
So, you now have full permission to join that community choir, dust off those piano keys, or even just belt it out in the shower.
Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, by Oliver Sacks
Tune In: Use Music Intentionally to Curb Stress, Boost Morale, and Restore Health. A Music Therapy Approach to Life, by Jennifer Buchanan
The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body by Steven Mithen
Do you have a song that “brings you back?” What is your transition anthem? Share your thoughts with us below!