Well-Toned: A Whole New Meaning

From the July 2010 Trumpet Print Edition

Could a song supply the equivalent of a vitamin? Could a symphony provide an immunity boost?

In fact, more and more studies are revealing the positive effects of music on the brain and even on physical health.

Not that this is revolutionary news. For ages, men have exploited the physical, emotional, mental and even spiritual health properties of music. Many trace this knowledge back to Pythagoras, the musical Greek mathematician who supposedly could tame animals through his lyre playing. But this knowledge actually traces back to even earlier. Why else would the men in the court of King Saul tell Israel’s first king to soothe his deep dementia by summoning a cunning harpist?

The human mind and body are extremely receptive to the harmony of numbers that is music. These sounds provide significant health benefits—much like clean air from the atmosphere and nutritious food from the ground. They have been proven to speed the body’s natural healing process and to strengthen the cognitive and emotional components of the mind.

msnbc.com contributor Bill Briggs explained, “Sound waves travel through the air into the ears and buzz the eardrums and bones in the middle ears. To decode the vibration, your brain transforms that mechanical energy into electrical energy, sending the signal to its cerebral cortex—a hub for thought, perception and memory. Within that control tower, the auditory cortex forwards the message on to brain centers that direct emotion, arousal, anxiety, pleasure and creativity. And there’s another stop upstairs: that electrical cue hits the hypothalamus which controls heart rate and respiration, plus your stomach and skin nerves, explaining why a melody may give you butterflies or goose bumps. Of course, all this communication happens far faster than a single drum beat” (msnbc Health, June 1, 2009).

Just as God created nutritious food, fresh air and clean water to enhance our health, He also made music with physically edifying properties.

A Cellular Dance

In 1998, a Nobel Prize-winning discovery showed how cells in our bodies create nitric oxide in waves, releasing the gas into the body tissue around them in a process called puffing. This “puffing” can boost cell vitality and vascular flow, aid in resisting stress, strengthen the immune system, diminish depression, improve digestion and impart higher levels of energy, stamina and mental clarity. Dr. John Beaulieu found that when humans listen simply to tuning forks—not to mention certain other types of music—their cells automatically puff.

More recently, Dr. Michael Miller of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center found a similar effect of this release of nitric oxide on the heart. He said that listening to music that we consider “joyful” can cause “endothelial tissue (a layer of cells lining the interior surface of blood vessels) to expand, thereby increasing blood flow to the heart and other vital organs” (medifasthealth.org, Aug. 31, 2009).

The American Heart Association published a study in 2009 stating that musical phrases 10 seconds or longer can cause the heart to synchronize its “inherent cardiovascular rhythm” to the beat of the music (americanheart.mediaroom.com, June 22, 2009).

Luciano Bernardi, head researcher in the study, said, “It is not only the emotion that creates the cardiovascular changes, but this study suggests that also the opposite might be possible, that cardiovascular changes may be the substrate for emotions, likely in a bi-directional way.”

The physical effects of music on the mental and emotional state is astounding.

Back to Center

Dr. Oliver Sacks, musician and neurologist, writes about the effects of music on schizophrenic patients: “Psychiatrists speak of schizophrenic people as having ‘negative’ symptoms (difficulties making contact with others, lack of motivation, and, above all, flat affect) as well as ‘positive’ ones (hallucinations, delusions). While medication can damp down the positive symptoms, it rarely has an effect on the negative ones, which are often more disabling—and it is here … that music therapy can be particularly useful and may help open up isolated, asocial people in a humane and uncoercive way” (Musicophilia, emphasis mine throughout).

Unlike medication, which can only take patients in one direction, music has the power to bring the patient back to center. Quoting music therapist Gretta Schulthorp, Sacks writes: “There are disturbed people who become calm, and silent people who give voice, frozen people who beat time.”

Sacks also discusses music’s profound effects on Parkinson patients and amnesiacs. He sums up one of his chapters: “As music seems to resist or survive the distortion of dreams or parkinsonism, or the losses of amnesia or Alzheimer’s, so it may resist the distortions of psychosis and be able to penetrate the deepest states of melancholia or madness, sometimes when nothing else can.”

This was the case with King Saul. In the first biblical record of music therapy, 1 Samuel 16:23 reads: “And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.”

At the end of his book, Dr. Sacks states that “to those who are lost in dementia,” music is not some trivial luxury of life, but “a necessity, and can have a power beyond anything else to restore them to themselves, and to others, at least for a while.”

With reporting by Ivory Vendig and Marcel Van Someren