Humans have been making music since as long as humans have existed. Every culture, no matter where they are from or what they hold dear, has some form of music. Heck, even babies make music – albeit, more the “banging pots and pans” variety. But what does music actually do to our brain? Does music have therapeutic value? Is there a way to harness that value for our own self-care?
Music & The Plastic Brain
Brain plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change and adapt depending on the stimulus it experiences. Similar to muscle memory, the more we use a certain skill or think a certain way, the more efficient that neural pathway becomes. As we develop different neural pathways, unused pathways are pruned. This is particularly important in childhood and adolescence.
But why am I talking about brain plasticity?
When we learn to play an instrument (including using our voice as an instrument) we are training different areas of our brain. Moreover, we are improving our brain’s connectivity and efficiency!
In one study, Schlaug and colleagues noted that intensive instrument practice changed the brain structurally. How? By increasing myelination, which affects how quickly nerve impulses travel through the brain. Therefore, something as simple as learning to play an instrument resulted in a significantly more efficient brain!
Likewise, Moreno and colleagues found that instrumental practice led to improved verbal skills and executive function in young children. Executive function, sometimes called Air Traffic Control, allows us to control our impulses, plan, and juggle multiple tasks at once. It is a key life skill that is important to nourish.
Music, specifically learning an instrument, is proven to nourish that skill!
Benefits For Older Adults!
While music training is key to developing the skills and brains of children, it’s benefits truly span our entire lives.
Schneider and colleagues reviewed eleven studies and concluded that playing music slowed cognitive decline in seniors. Moreover, singing, as explored by Skingley and colleagues, was reported to benefit physical, social, psychological, and community well-being.
Based on the impact music has on the brain in childhood, we can infer that these benefits continue long into adulthood! Moreover, choirs, bands, and singing groups are an excellent way to build community. Relationships are key to the well-being of anyone. Many seniors and older people often report feeling isolated and disconnected from others around them.
Therefore, harnessing the power of music to bring people together is a wonderful way to make new friends with shared interests.
We all want to be a part of something, and with music, we can do that!
The Therapeutic Value of Music
Clearly, music changes our brains – usually for the better!
However, I am curious if music can be used to help treat mental illness. Music therapy is not a new idea, but it is still relatively rare. I, myself, am curious about the scientific support for this type of therapy.
McCaffrey and colleagues explore the value of music therapy in select case studies. In the first case study, a client used music therapy to stabilize mood, increase confidence, and cope with depression. While at first, she listened to others playing instruments, eventually she participated herself. Another client, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, articulated his struggles and actively participated in therapy. A third client could self-regulate better, and manage his anxiety when playing music.
What does this tell us about music therapy?
- It improves confidence. When we learn any new skill, we become more confident. By learning an instrument, clients understood that they were capable of learning and contributing new things.
- Music therapy promotes self-expression. How many of us used music as teens to build an identity? I certainly did! Likewise, in music therapy, clients are more likely to share thoughts and feelings that they may not be able to otherwise.
- Playing instruments helps support self-regulation. As seen above, playing an instrument promotes Executive Function. Self-control is just one part of that. However, it is a key skill for those struggling with anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.
Drum The Blues Away
Perkins and colleagues mirrored these findings in their own study.
Some people cannot play instruments. Just like some people cannot play sports. Luckily, that doesn’t mean that music therapy has no benefit!
In this study, the researchers measured the effects of a djembe drumming circle on participants’ mental health. A djembe, for those who do not know, is a type of African drum (pictured below).
They concluded that participating in the drumming circle had three (3) key effects:
- Drumming acted as a form of communication, which generated and released energy
- Group participation fostered feelings of connection, acceptance, and safety
- In this environment, participants reported feeling safe when making mistakes. It was a learning process embodied by freedom.
Evidently, music therapy is not just for those who are musically inclined! Perkins and colleagues also posit that the drumbeat mimics a beating heart, which promotes feelings of safety and energy within the group.
The Musical Takeaway
Music is a part of life. We can find music anywhere! If you ever watched August Rush or listened to Stomp, you’ll understand.
Ultimately, what matters is being a part of the music. Whether you are learning to play classical piano, jazz harmonica, or the spoons, you will have the ability to express yourself, take pride in your skill, and maybe even support your brain! If playing an instrument isn’t right for you, sing, listen or dance.
Either way, you are taking part in the human experience!
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