Being in the field of music therapy, I am continually astounded by the power of music. Usually when I talk to someone about what I do, I will tell them about the numerous scientific studies showing evidence of music’s ability to move and heal us.
If you watch the news, you have probably seen more and more stories of the success of music therapy. For instance, when Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was wounded by a bullet into the left side of her brain, she was able to talk again through music therapy. After the shooting, she was not able to speak, but amazingly she could sing the words, a common characteristic of patients with aphasia. Through success stories like this, music therapy has recently been brought to the public eye and gives people a glimpse of how effective it really is. And as any MT professional, intern, or student knows, it is important to keep up with these news articles and breaking research studies in order to be able to advocate for our profession. In this week’s post, I thought I might share with you some of my favorite articles and studies on the truly amazing things that music can do.
Disclaimer: Not everything on this list has been scientifically proven…yet. Because the field of music and its effects on the human brain is in its baby years, these studies only suggest and lead to conclusions based on the data obtained. Hopefully new research will find consistent-enough results to conclude what everyone has seemingly known all along: music is a powerful force to be reckoned with.
1. All pop music really does sound the same.
It’s official: pop music is louder and blander today than it was 50 years ago. Some researchers in Spain used a huge database of pop songs from 1955 to 2010 to come up with data that says our chord progressions are getting simpler, volume is getting louder, and the overall timbre, or tone quality, has less variety. Simply put, there is a formula for a hit song, and pop artists and producers are cranking them out all the time. You may not necessarily hate today’s Top 40 (I know I don’t), but if you’re one of those people who sticks to the “oldies but goodies”, you may have a good point.
2. Musicians who play together think together.
I remember this one time I was singing with the Carey Chorale for a concert, and we were singing a piece we had rehearsed quite a few times. I can’t remember if our director had maybe forgotten to cue us or if we just had a collective brain fart, but either way, we were silent for about four measures after we were supposed to enter, and we all knew it. But then it was like we read our director’s mind; almost ALL of us came back in at the same time, so nobody knew we had messed up at all! Afterwards, my Chorale friends remarked at how odd and uncanny that moment was, and it turns out that this is a proven phenomenon.
Scientists conducted a study with trained guitarists in which they attached electrodes to their heads while they played a duet. They discovered that the brain waves coordinated between the two partners in order to perform the music together.These findings suggest that brain waves coordinate in order to perform a collective task, in this case, a jazz guitar duet. The same principle can be applied to a capella groups, orchestras, small ensembles, and just about any other instance in which musicians are required to play in tune with each other.
3. Studying music rewires your brain.
We all know that learning music skills at an early age has so many benefits, but new studies are suggesting that it actually rewires the way we think. Research has found that certain parts of the brain are larger in musicians, and they have enhanced motor and auditory processing skills. Researchers also found that the more years of musical experience a person has, the larger the effect. So basically if you want your child to be a little Einstein, put them in piano lessons early.
4. There is a name for those pesky songs that get stuck in our heads.
Ever had the urge to post song lyrics as your Facebook or Twitter statuses because you just can’t get them out of your head? Those annoying songs and lyrics are called Involuntary Musical Imagery, or “earworms”, and sometimes they drive us crazy. Some say they are even more predominant in musicians, women (?), and people who are tired, stressed or neurotic (kinda describes most musicians, but I digress). Personally, I have either a song or a catchy movie quote in my head all the time. When I was younger I thought it was just me, but turns out it happens to everyone. Think about it: what song is in your head at this very moment? You probably have been busy occupying yourself with various other tasks of the day, but turn up the volume on whatever is playing in your brain for a minute. Is it Taylor Swift? Maybe a commercial jingle? Are you annoyed by it yet? The best way to deal with them is to just accept it and think about something else. Another method is to sing the lyrics out loud to pass them on and “infect” somebody else. I’ve also heard that chewing on a cinnamon stick helps?
5. You like a certain version of a song not because it’s better, but because you heard that version first.
How many times do we complain when Facebook changes it’s layout and newsfeed (for the MILLIONTH time)? And who else was irked with the new Darrin on “Bewitched”? Or the new Dumbledore? People like originals; we don’t like change. The same is true of the versions of songs we listen to. Some people may actually welcome change or don’t really have a preference for either song versions (I personally am torn equally between Dolly and Whitney’s versions of “I Will Always Love You”), but most of us detest it. And according to the study, we actually prefer something that looks or sounds original because we perceive originality as “better”.
6. Today’s music says that our culture is Narcissistic
A study in the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts journal confirms what you probably already know: our culture is becoming more and more about “me, me, ME!”. Since our music points to some of the attitudes of our society, researchers put this data into a study that suggests our culture is more “self-focused”. Words like “I”, “me”, and “mine” are more commonly found in song lyrics today than they were 15 years ago. Also, more violent words such as “hate” and “kill” appear in our lyrics. These characteristics are both common traits in Narcissistic and Antisocial personality disorders. Hmm…and antipsychotic medication use is up among our youth? (See: http://journals.lww.com/ajnonline/Fulltext/2012/11000/NewsCAP___U_S__prescriptions_for_antipsychotics_on.10.aspx)
There are many more studies out there about the power of music, and there are many more studies to be done. Although I don’t believe there can ever be a scientific formula for the beauty and magic of music, I do believe there is much to be discovered about music’s effect on humans. This is a field that is constantly growing, and hopefully this research can expand and be applied in music therapy practice. Do any of these apply to you? Let me know what you think!
For more information on Gabby Giffords amazing recovery through music therapy, see: http://abcnews.go.com/Health/w_MindBodyNews/gabby-giffords-finding-voice-music-therapy/story?id=14903987