Music and Biology

Take a music bath once or twice a week for a few seasons and you will find it is to the soul what the water bath is to the body.  Oliver Wendell Holmes

Music has a symbiotic relationship with the body. The body can adapt to the music we hear and the body may influence how music is perceived. When the elements of music are applied appropriately to meet certain goals, the limbic system (emotional centre of the body) receives information which can adjust the physiologic system. Music is one of the most viable resources for putting the body at ease.

The limbic system is made up of a group of interconnected neural structures arranged in border-like fashion at the top of the brainstem surrounding the midline surfaces of the cerebral hemispheres. This system concerns itself with homeostatic processes of body temperature, heart rate, respiration rate, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, acid-base balance, sleep/wake cycles and fight-or-flight survival instincts. This system also moderates survival behaviors like thirst/hunger reflexes, sexual fulfillment drives, competition. Music, in particular melody, appeals to the limbic system. Music is nonverbal so it can move through the brain’s auditory cortex directly to the center of the limbic system. It may be used to calm down sensory input and dispel fears. It may also stimulate the senses and fire up activity. Music provides an environment of excitability or reassurance.

It is also this system that tags information for storage (hippocampus). When we hear music, our brains try to make an association through whatever visual, auditory and other sensory cues accompany it. We try to contextualize the sounds into our schema and eventually, we create memory links between a particular set of notes and a particular place, time or set of events. Music becomes cross-coded with the events of our lives. That is why music easily triggers associations. Hearing a melody years after an event takes place may “re-member” the neurological links or groupings and surface memories.

Music engages the auditory system (hearing) which is a vital connection to the vestibular system (balance, movement). Rhythm is a stimulus that instigates movement and can help integrate and organize the sensory system. Many experts suggest that it is the thythm of the music or the beat that has the calming effect on us although we may not be very conscious about it. Rhythm is the most important musical element that the body detects, attends to, and resonates with through neural entrainment. Entrainment is the rhythmic manifestation of resonance. With entrainment, a stronger external pulse does not just activate another pulse but actually causes the latter to move out of its own resonant frequency to match it. Music alters the performance of the nervous system primarily because of entrainment.Furthermore, electromyographic (EMG) studies of the electrical activity of muscle function show that auditroy cues can arouse and raise the excitability of spinal motor neurons. For example when you listen to a fast beat song, many times your foot will start to beat automatically in rhythm to that beat and then your heartbeat will follow. Music therapist Dorita Berger claims that internalizing rhythms through marching, beating a drum or tambourine will assist in body coordination, proprioceptive-tactile feedback and motor planning. Listening for rhythmic changes may bring about auditory focus, tracking, sound tolerance and depth perception.

There is sufficient evidence that music influeces the cardiovascular and respiratory systems and reduces anxiety, heart and respiratory rates. One study took forty patients who had recently suffered hear attacks and exposed them to “relaxing music” Results indicated that heart rate, respiratory rate and measurable states of anxiety were significantly reduced. Another study reported systolic blood pressure was significantly reduced in nine subjects who listened to music at 55 beats per second. Still another study reported that among patients who had been recently admitted to a coronary care unit after suffering heart attacks and exposed to music for 2 days had fewer complications than those who were not.

Studies also suggest that soothing music can affect stress and anxiety and influence our immune system. When the brain attends music and the auditory input is “safe”, neurotransmitters such as dopamine and sedating chemicals that calm and minimize systemic excitability are discharged. Whether it is the direct effect of the music or the effect of distraction, the person may momentarily forget her fear and anxiety.

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