More than a pretty melody

Nineteenth century politician and orator, Robert Ingersoll once said, “Music expresses feeling and thought, without language; it was below and before speech, and it is above and beyond all words.” Music is said to be the language of the soul. Plato wrote, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.”

Music is a part of every culture, both in the past and today. Everyone knows a song or two. Mothers sooth their crying babies by singing lullabies. People worship gods with singing. Lovers croon beneath the windows of their intended. Children instinctively dance to lively tunes. The old remember the music of their youth when other memories fade.

Scientists who study how the brain works are learning interesting things about music and neurology. With modern methods of observing brain activity, researchers are able to see the effects of music on our brains. They are finding that philosophers are right. Music is a built-in part of how our brains function.

It seems that we are born with an ability to recognize the beat of a song and the repetitive notes of music. Mothers almost instinctively know that music and a rhythmical rocking back and forth both have a soothing effect on tiny babies. Scientists are finding that the parts of the brain which respond to these kinds of stimuli are deep in the brain in the unconscious mind. Music, research shows, activates parts of the brain which control speech, hearing, thinking, emotion and even movement.

The connection of music to our muscles makes us tap our feet when we listen. It makes us want to jump up and dance. This stimulation of the part of our brain which controls our muscles is being used in new ways to heal our bodies. Music therapy is being used to help patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease and for victims of strokes, multiple sclerosis, and brain injuries. Some Parkinson’s patients are helped in their balance and ability to walk by listening to music. Stroke patients who have lost their ability to speak sometimes can relearn speech through singing. There are some therapists who have been able to help children with learning disabilities with the use of music.

People suffering from Alzheimer’s disease respond to the stimulus of music familiar to them. Remembering a favorite song may stimulate other memories buried deep within a person’s brain.

Learning to play music has been shown to increase a person’s ability to solve other problems. Learning to distinguish different sounds in a piece of music such as recognizing a specific harmony or a specific instrument seems to help in being able to pick speech out of a noisy environment. Older people who play music seem to be able to hear conversation better in spite of background noise.

Music makes people happy and allows people to express feelings of sadness and loss. Music helps our bodies heal and to cope with pain. Music is universal and stimulates creative thought. Music lessons are never wasted. Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that only those who can play music on a professional level should take up an instrument. None of the research indicates that the benefits of playing music only works when the music is good enough for Carnegie Hall. It doesn’t even seem to matter if anyone else hears it.

Scientists are telling us that pulling out that old trumpet or clarinet that is molding in the closet may be the best therapy for much of what ails us, young and old.

Copyright © 2017 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains