Updated: May 15, 2019
Music is recognized as a life-affirming activity around the world. Historically, priests, shamans, and medicine men and women used music, especially the voice and drumming, as a way to treat and heal physical, mental, and spiritual illness. The fields of Music Therapy and Sound Healing have grown exponentially in recent years as current psychological and medical research shows how music positively affects our physical and intellectual wellness, as well as our emotional and mental health.
Studying music as a child reaps rewards for students throughout their lives. Music education has repeatedly been proven to be a crucial part of a well-rounded education. Students who study music perform better in ALL areas. Music is a mentally “global” activity. It is the only activity than stimulates the whole brain. Music works the mathematical, lingual, physical, emotional, and spatial parts of our brain. Watch this wonderful video from TED to see how this works.
“A music-rich experience for children of singing, listening and moving is really bringing a very serious benefit to children as they progress into more formal learning.”
– Mary Luehrisen, Executive Director of the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM)
Those benefits don’t cease when a student leaves school. A recent study conducted at the University of Kansas Medical Center recruited 70 healthy older adults between the ages of 60 and 83, who were grouped based on their levels of previous musical experience, none, low (1-9 years of musical experiences,) and high (those with 10 or more years of previous musical experience.) The researchers measured the non-verbal memory, naming, and executive processes in all the participants. These brain functions are all known to deteriorate with aging. The musicians scored better on cognitive tests than those who had no previous musical training with the highly experienced musicians performing the best.
"Musical activity throughout life may serve as a challenging cognitive exercise, making your brain fitter and more capable of accommodating the challenges of aging. Since studying an instrument requires years of practice and learning, it may create alternate connections in the brain that could compensate for cognitive declines as we get older."
– Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, Head Researcher, University of Kansas Medical Center Study
While beginning an instrument at an elementary school age and singing at a middle school age is ideal, it is never too late to benefit from learning and practicing music. Suzanne Hanser, chair of the music therapy department at the Berklee College of Music in Boston points out, “Music making is linked to a number of health benefits for older adults.”
It may seem daunting to start something new as an adult. However, adults tend to progress more quickly than children due to their greater understanding of the abstract concepts behind music making. Sometimes adults will become frustrated and judge their progress more harshly than younger beginners. It is important to remember that learning music is like training for a marathon, and it is a process. The enjoyment that music brings is the most important part of the process at any age.
In this new blog series, we will explore the lasting benefits of music for student all-ages. As research shows how important the mind-body connection is two our overall wellness, a lot of the benefits of music are mutually beneficial to our emotional wellness, intellectual development, and physical health. For our first post, we will learn some of the physical benefits of a regular music practice.
Physical Benefits of Music
1. Breathing and Aerobic Health – Those who sing and/or play a wind instrument use a technique known as “diaphragmatic breathing.” Even musicians, who play non-wind instruments, instinctively breathe along with their playing. This type of breathing allows for natural, deep breaths like the type of breathing that yogis and meditators use. Deep breathing strengthens our lungs and respiratory system.
2. Stress Reduction – Much like other aerobic activities, making music has the ability to lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate, reduce anxiety and depression risk, and increase our energy level.
3. Immune Response – Music has been shown to increase immune function. According to Suzanne Hanser there is “increasing evidence that making music enhances the immunological response, which enables us to fight viruses.” In animal studies, research has shown that listening to music “enhanced the immune parameters and the anti-tumor response in unstressed rodents” (M.J. Nuñez, et al.).
4. Better Hearing – Music education trains you to isolate sounds amongst a backdrop of other sounds. Even musicians with hearing loss have better listening skills than non-musicians. A study from Fredrich Shiller University in Jena, Germany showed that musicians with severe hearing damage could detect when harmonies were slightly off-key. This is how Beethoven could still compose even when he was nearly deaf.
5. Overall Activity Level – Playing an instrument or singing increases our over-all activity level. You must properly use your arm, shoulder, back, leg, chest, neck, and throat muscles to play with good technique. For example, a pianist doesn’t just play from his fingers; the motion actually starts at his shoulder.
6. Coordination – Both playing an instrument and/or singing require strong hand-eye coordination skills. Your eyes read the notes on the pages and look for cues from the conductor or other players, while you subconsciously move your body to play or sing, time your breathing, and sometimes march or dance or perform other choreographed movements during a performance.
7. Posture – Proper posture is necessary to successful musical performance. The shoulder needs to be back. The chest needs to be open. The head must be on the spine. A good teacher will encourage your posture. Good posture is known to alleviate common neck and back pain, and it will benefit you even when you are not playing or singing.
8. Physical Pain Relief – Music has been shown to abate pain and suffering. It has the ability to trigger the brain to release chemicals, which distract the body from physical pain.
9. Music makes us move - Do you find yourself tapping or toes or wanting to dance when listening to your favorite songs? Research proves that the parts of our brain that control movement are directly linked to those that perceive music. So, quite literally, we can't help but move to the music.
10. Increased Physical Performance – Listening to music has been shown to directly correlate to better performance in other physical tasks. Music with a bpm (Beats per minute) of 120 to 140 is ideal. Making music while doing another activity has even more benefit. This includes the ability to control our playlists, singing, and whistling. There is research currently being done where researchers are creating workout equipment that alters the music based on the participants movements.
"There is a massive benefit from being musical that we don’t understand, but it’s individual. Music is for music’s sake. The benefit of music education for me is about being musical. It gives you have a better understanding of yourself. The horizons are higher when you are involved in music. Your understanding of art and the world, and how you can think and express yourself, are enhanced.”
– Dr. Eric Rasmussen, Director of Early Childhood Music Education at the Peabody Preparatory of the Johns Hopkins University
Music has an amazing ability to aid us physically, but we don’t participate in music for these benefits alone. The most important reason to study and practice music is for its own sake. The true value of learning music at any age is how it becomes a part of our lives and shapes we who are.
Brown, Laura Lewis. “The Benefits of Music Education.” PBSParents. http://www.pbs.org/parents/education/music-arts/the-benefits-of-music-education, accessed 2/25/2018.
Bryant, Sharon. “Benefits of Learning and Playing Music for Adults.” NAMM Foundation. https://www.nammfoundation.org/articles/2014-06-01/benefits-learning-and-playing-music-adults?gclid=Cj0KCQiA2snUBRDfARIsAIGfpqGXPqyJ9cMlBthndyZfwXjPdb7exztpZ52OLCBnO328j4PkS-Xd2KoaAtxbEALw_wcB, accessed 2/25/2018.
Cicetti, Fred. “Is Playing a Music Instrument Good for Your Health?” Live Science. https://www.livescience.com/40597-playing-musical-instrument-good-health.html, accessed 2/25/2018.
Fritz, Thomas H., et al. "Music Feedback During Exercise Machine Workout Enhances Mood." Front Psychology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3857889, accessed 2/25/2018.
Hamilton, Jon. “Say What?! Musicians Hear Better.” NPR. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113938566, accessed 2/25/2018.
Hanna-Pladdy, Brenda and Alicia MacKay. “The Relation Between Instrumental Musical Activity and Cognitive Aging.” Neuropsychology, Vol. 25, No 3, 378-586.
https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/neu-25-3-378.pdf, accessed 2/25/2018.
Nuñez, M.J., et al. “Music, Immunity, and Cancer.” Life Sci, Vol. 71, No. 9, 1047-57. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12088764, accessed 2/25/2018.
Swanson, Abbie Fentress. “Music Helps Vets Control Symptoms of PTSD.” WQXR Features. https://www.wqxr.org/story/14685-music-treat-veterans-ptsd, accessed 2/25/2018.