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Musician, Heal Thyself

“The idea of music as a healing influence which could affect health and behavior is as least as old as the writings of Aristotle and Plato.” So argues the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA).

OK. I’ll bite. But the idea that the Furies would torture you for matricide is just as ancient—and grossly quaint by today’s standards.

So we often hear about the usefulness of music when it comes to pain management or recovery from any sort of bodily or mental trauma. But we seldom hear the details in a concrete or scientific way. Seems kinda elusive as a medical practice and, therefore, it’s kinda suspect.

Beyond ABBA or Anthrax simply making you feel better, depending on your predilections, what’s actually happening in the brain?

Well, here’s the heart of it: Music therapy doesn’t – can’t – cure a person. It doesn’t mend a compound tib-fib fracture any quicker, or stitch up that finger you lost to your nephew’s Rottie. And yet, it is entirely effective, therapeutically. It can help heal you, help ease your pain.

And herein lies it’s magic. Not at the physical site of your pain, but deep in the limbic system of your brain.

A tune enters your head, burrows like an earworm, and starts tinkering with your limbic system, where instinct and mood live. This will essentially ease your mind and body up to better recover.

OK. You promised something more scientific and concrete.

So what’s the limbic system?

Well if it’s not too simplistic to say Jaws is about a shark, let’s say the limbic system is concerned with the regulation of emotion. Experts bristle at this cheap and easy explanation, understandably, because the limbic system comprises six different parts that interact in quite complicated ways. Each serves a different function and, together, they strike the terrifyingly delicate balance of chemicals that keep us from diving in front of a UPS truck, or eating 17 sleeves of Oreos.

The hypothalamus is a part of the limbic system that receives chemical messages from other parts of the brain and, reacting to those messages, modulates things like hunger and sex drive and temper and thirst, body temperature, and blood pressure.

Keeps us in check.

Of late, researchers have become interested in its involvement in disease states andresistance thereto.

So, for example, music can and does release dopamine from the hyphothalamus, endorphins from the pituitary gland, once thought to be the seat of the soul. These two hormones make us feel good, get us naturally high, and as a result, act as great pain relievers.

The AMTA maintains that music therapy can be used in lots of ways: Listening to peaceful music can reduce stress, banging out a tune on your drum set, Animal (the Muppet)-like, can reduce stress; music can mellow you out and induce sleep.

Bit of a trend here.

Much of that action occurs in the limbic part of the brain.

Music has other functions, such as sensory and intellectual stimulation (although not from Nickelback, whose chief utility is torturing DUI suspects). It can trigger memories and associations, thus bringing Alzheimer’s patients temporary clarity. It can be used as a basis for bonding and communication (“Kumbaya, My Lord …”). Hearing “Back in Black” can inspire the energy needed to power through a grueling session of physical therapy.

But the heart of music therapy is its ability to reduce stress, because stress is a key component in disease and injury states. And stress is lethal.

          High stress keeps us inflamed and focused on our pain. We start to feel hot, sweaty; we overeat, we lose sleep, our blood pressure’s outta control, we get heart palpitations.

          So anything that successfully reduces stress is likely to help the hypothalamus and other parts of the deep brain to sustain the brain’s balance of needs and operational standards.

Body’s piping at a good 98.6℉, appetite’s sated with three square meals, heart’s aflutter at 60-100 bpm—most other discordant things tend to fall into place when these things are in order.

As Psychology Today puts it: “Because the experience of pain is partially subjective, altering a person’s perception of that pain can change their experience of [it].”

OK, all of that’s the emotional side of music. For most of us, music improves our quality of life. That’s a given.

But lately, some good science has shown that music can – and does – work on the physical body, too. So perhaps it can help that fracture or laceration heal faster after all.

In any case, we find that music like ours, specially-designed to act on your limbic system – without the emotional or intellectual stimulation – can ease your chronic pain, even your depression, by allowing you to focus on whatever task you have at hand.

Check it all out at

1 comment

  1. I’m a writer, and I’ve noticed since I’ve been using F@W, I tend to suffer fewer migraines (a long term challenge). So, same strain on the eyes, same bad posture all day long, but when I’m more focused on the work at hand I think I’m less conscious of my body, both good and bad, more “in the zone.”

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