Almost everyone loves music. We use music as a soundtrack for our lives. Special music accompanies the important events in our lives, like weddings, graduations and funerals. It pumps up sports events. Sometimes when we’re watching a movie, it seems that we could close our eyes and the musics would continue to tell us how to feel!
If you’re interested in why certain rhythms, sounds and tones have such an effect on individuals, cultures and the human species, check out books such as musician David Byrne’s How Music Works or Dr. Daniel J. Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music. It doesn’t spoil the magic to know a bit about how musical therapy works in our brains. Modern brain imaging has been used to observe how our brains process and are affected by musical pieces. And this research continues to confirm that songs are a powerful tool for brain health and healthy aging.
It begins early in life. Neuroscientists warn that when school districts cut musical programs, kids miss out on an important tool to enhance learning across the board—from language to mathematics to emotional intelligence. Playing and listening to musically themed styles also protects our memories. Multiple areas of the brain react as we are listening to music, which helps build new neurons and connections and make our memory more resilient. Emory University researcher Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, Ph.D., reported, “Musical activity throughout life may serve as a challenging cognitive exercise, making your brain fitter and more capable of accommodating the challenges of aging.”
But at any age, music offers many benefits. It affects the mind and body physically, influencing brain waves, blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, and muscle tone. It provides many other important health benefits for older adults. For example:
Music can improve our emotional state. It can uplift the spirit. It can reduce anxiety, stress and agitation. Music which is associated with pleasant memories can be a source of relaxation. And the therapeutic use of music has been shown to be effective in reducing depression.
Music can decrease the perception of pain. It provides distraction from aches and illness. Listening to music that a person enjoys can actually raise the level of brain chemicals that give us a feeling of well-being. A 2015 study from the UK even showed that listening to music before, during and after surgery improved recovery and reduced discomfort. (Not surprisingly, the effect was best if patients selected their own music.)
Music has the capacity to reach hidden brain areas. It is stored differently in the brain than are speech and memory. This is why people with an impaired ability to speak or carry on a conversation due to a condition such as Alzheimer’s disease or stroke may still be able to sing.
Music serves as a storehouse for memories. Pictures, thoughts and vivid recollections can all be encoded in the mind with songs. Music helps people with memory loss access these memories, and also become more aware of the present, their surroundings and other people. Musical therapy is a valuable tool in dementia care. (See the inspiring Musica & Memory project website.)
Music encourages us to be active. What’s more fun, calisthenics or dancing? With the addition of it, movements become a pleasure rather than a chore. And anyone who has created a running playlist knows that music can encourage us to pick up the pace.
Music can improve sleep quality. Studies show that seniors who have sleep problems often experience improvement after listening to soft musics at bedtime.
Music brings people together. People who play or listen to music as a group have been shown to experience the same neurological responses to the rhythms and mood. This can result in a feeling of connection and togetherness that is familiar to concertgoers or congregations at a faith community. Joining together in a musical environment brings unity to people of different abilities and of different generations.
Music provides a sense of meaning and fulfillment. Studies show that most of us have our own strong musical tastes, with which we often identify. Reacting to music in one’s own way builds self-esteem.
Music provides comfort at the end of life. A recent study from Germany confirmed that musical therapy enhances a sense of well-being and relaxation for people with a life-limiting illness. Hospice organizations recommend the use of appropriate, personalized music to help meet the physical, emotional and psychosocial needs of these patients.
A couple of caveats: As we grow older, it’s harder to tune out distracting sounds, and that includes background musics. A 2015 study from Georgia Institute of Technology suggested that when seniors are performing tasks that take a lot of attention, silence may be golden. In addition, a small minority of people do not enjoy musical offerings. It’s not just a matter of preference; they just aren’t “wired” to like it.
But for most of us, adding music to our life can enhance our sense of well-being in so many ways. So learn to play a new instrument, or dig your long unused horn out of the closet. Find an online radio channel you enjoy. Go to concerts at the senior center. If you live in a senior living community, check out musical offerings in the activities program. Or take part in multicultural events—you might find a whole new genre of music to inspire you! There are other successful options as well!