Whether you’re a millennial or middle-aged, chances are you’ve heard about sound healing—the idea that sound can encourage everything from sharpened awareness to a calmer mood. The science is there to prove it, too: A 2016 study demonstrated that singing bowl meditations aided in a host of bodily improvements, from lowered blood pressure to bolstered immune strength and enhanced circulation.
If you’re the sort of person who shies away from the likes of healing crystals and sound baths (an increasingly popular healing technique in which people are “bathed” in sounds from gongs, chimes, singing bowls, drums, and voices), rest assured that Pandora holds just as much promise for boosting your health. Read on to discover how music can affect your brain and body—and what you should listen to (and what you should avoid) to promote wellness.
The Mind on Music
A bit of background: Recently, I signed up for a music breakthrough workshop that had me not only singing in front of a room full of strangers but also experiencing waves of emotions I hadn’t felt in decades. It got me curious: What, exactly, does music do to the brain? And how can it be used an instrument (forgive the pun) for emotional healing?
All of this may sound intuitive—we all know that an upbeat song can instantly improve our mood (and possibly mentally prep us for a workout, test, or big date), just as we all know to stay away from Adele’s “Someone Like You” during a breakup. In fact, research shows that music has been part of the human condition since our start 250,000 years ago. Indirectly and deliberately, we use it to cope and for solace; to escape and for distraction; to cheer up and chill out and connect with others. But a deeper dive into music’s impact on the mind shows that its powers and drawbacks are potent and intricate.
How does this work? A little anatomy: Your vagus nerve—also called the X-cranial nerve—is the longest and most complex cranial nerve in your body. As Swiss researchers wrote in Frontiers in Psychiatry, the vagus nerve “represents the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which oversees a vast array of crucial bodily functions, including control of mood, immune response, digestion, and heart rate.” Meanwhile, in your ear, you have a vestibulocochlear nerve that connects to your vagus nerve. A small branch of this vagus nerve goes directly to your eardrum, which responds to sound waves. Translation? Every sound your ear picks up sends information to your vagus nerve, and, thus, impacts your nervous system.
The implications of this are vast and promising. Lithuanian researchers reported that long-term music therapy mitigates anxiety, increases positive behavior and cognitive function in schizophrenic patients, and may be therapeutic for those with chronic pain. Additionally, a 2009 paper published by F1000 Biology Reports showed that music can drive neuroplasticity: Children who received musical instrument training saw anatomical changes in the brain (specifically, in the cortical motor system, the auditory system, and the corpus callosum—the part of the brain that allows communication between the two hemispheres in your mind), while stroke victims experienced “significant improvements” in recovery of their verbal memory and attention spans after listening to their favorite music on a daily basis. Dementia patients benefit from music, too. Research shows that it may ease their anxiety and induce a soothing effect. What’s more, Dr. Robert Finkelstein—who helms the NIH’s music and health initiative—says that “music can facilitate movement” and “can help people with Parkinson’s disease walk.”
Even the most physically-healthy among us may benefit from music: A 2012 study published in Learning and Individual Differences found that students may absorb more information when classical music is playing in the background during a lecture, while additional studies demonstrate that certain tempos can improve sleep and enhance athletic performance. Further, music triggers pleasure centers that release feel-good chemicals such as dopamine, leaving you “Feelin’ Alright” indeed.
Create a Playlist for Pleasure
Sound promising? It is. But, as I just touched upon, the type of music is important to consider. As the NIH News in Health reports, “Music can offer many health benefits, but it may not be helpful for everyone. Traumatic injuries and brain conditions can change the way a person perceives and responds to music. Some people may find some types of music overstimulating. Others may find that certain music brings up emotional and traumatic memories.”
So what should you listen to? Music that, in short, heals, rather than provokes disturbances in the brain or perpetuates harmful behaviors. As Time reports, “One 2015 study from Finland found that music can bolster negative emotions—like anger, aggression or sadness—much the same way it can counteract these feelings.” Daniel Levitin, a professor of psychology who researches the cognitive neuroscience of music at Canada’s McGill University explains that “the rhythm and other characteristics of the songs we select can modulate our heart rates and the activity of our brain’s neural networks.”
While the effect of music is largely subjective, what we should listen to is also intuitive. If you’re looking for inspiration, Personal Excellence has compiled a list of 56 Most Inspirational Songs of All Time. People in need of emotional release, meanwhile, may want to dip into Mozart and Bach (a study in PubMed found that those who listened to classical music in the background were more open to divulging their feelings and stories).
Those who are attempting to move out of codependent partnerships and dynamics may want to steer away from such songs as Harry Nilsson’s “Without You,” The Cardigan’s “Lovefool,”and “Willie Nelson’s “All of Me.” And anyone suffering from the blues—whether it’s the ache of a recent loss or clinical depression—should avoid songs like William Fitzsimmon’s “So This is Goodbye,” and the Beatles “Yer Blues,” and Lenny Kravitz’s heartstrings’-tearing “Again.”
Rather, create a playlist on Spotify or switch to a new Pandora channel that promotes what it is you’re after. Need to buckle down and write a report, or study for a course? Ashford University recommends instrumental music “and other soothing genres” to “help you stay calm and focused.” Going on a run? Find songs that catch your desired pace and you may increase your performance by 15%. Alternatively, as some science shows, you may feel better simply by finding a song that matches your mood. And if it’s motivation, empowerment, recovery, and happiness you’re after, check out Jewel’s “Life Uncommon,” Mariah Carey’s “Through the Rain,” and, of course, Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song.” It may come through your ears, but it’s all medicine for the spirit.
Click here to buy Dr. Laurie Steelsmith’s books, Natural Choices for Women’s Health, Great Sex, Naturally and Growing Younger Every Day: The Three Essential Steps for Creating Youthful Hormone Balance at Any Age.