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  • Writer's picturePatrycja Namsył

The Power of Sound: How Vibrations Shape Your Brain and Behaviour


Everyone loves music. Whether you listen to it while working, walking to school or while falling asleep; on average a person listens to music 20 hours weekly. But have you ever considered that this form of art can be used for purposes other than simply enjoyment? In the ancient times, medicine was relied on heavily by faith, and sometimes magic. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Indians used vegetables and herbs to treat common illnesses like colds. However, as times progressed, people started believing more in science and developing what we now know as modern medicine. However, there was always one thing that continued to be used for both its pleasure, as well as for its therapeutic and healing properties - music.


The sounds we are surrounded with and those produced by others can cause a significant change in our mood, impact our wellbeing and reduce anxiety or stress. Both playing and listening to music can affect many parts of our brain including: the auditory cortex - responsible for processing sound, the motor cortex - which controls movement and the limbic system - involved in our emotions and behavioural responses (1).


Have you ever gotten chills or felt like you were on Cloud 9 while listening to your favourite song? This is because listening to music triggers a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter, in our brain that affects many parts of the body and allows us to feel both pleasure and satisfaction. This is the main reason for why it is commonly referred to as the ‘feel good’ hormone. A group of researchers in Montreal conducted a study on how individuals react when listening to certain pieces of music (2). Using fMRI and ligand based positron emission tomography (PET) scanning, the scientists monitored the subjects brains while listening to music and were able to obtain a clear picture of what occurs, step by step, in the brain when the subject listens to their favourite song. They found that dopamine levels in the brain increase significantly while listening to it but, moments before the subjects favourite part of the song, the dopamine activity in the brain is greater than while the subject was listening to their favourite part. This anticipation happens when the music patterns break apart and when it is most unpredictable. Sometimes when we listen to something too often it becomes boring and repetitive, as our brain gets used to the sounds. Composers often use the tonic of the scale at the beginning of pieces to familiarise the listener with what's to come but then suddenly either change the key or never actually resolve the piece in the end. Dissonance can activate our brain even more as we await the resolution and the beautiful chord that we are yet to reach. Our neurones search for that perfect ending that we love so much.


Music not only triggers the release of dopamine but also endorphins, the body's natural painkillers, which can be helpful to patients undergoing surgery or chemotherapy to make the procedures less uncomfortable for the patient. A study from 2013 conducted by researchers from the University of Alberta, showed that children who listened to music while getting an IV (an intravenous line through which patients receive medicine) demonstrated much less distress and pain compared to patients who did not listen to music while getting their IV inserted (3). Music can reduce levels of cortisol, resulting in smaller anxiety and stress levels for patients who suffer from chronic illnesses like cancer or heart diseases, as it can promote relaxation, lower blood pressure, and improve one's mood. Music can also have a major influence on patients who struggle with conditions which impact their movement and memory.


At its core, music is rooted in vibrations travelling through the air. These vibrations consist of different frequencies which determine its pitch, however pure vibrations can be used as a form of therapy on their own. Vibroacoustic therapy can be used to help improve symptoms of patients with Parkinson’s disease (4). During this type of therapy, a patient lays down on a bed or sits in a chair embedded in speakers which produce vibrations at low frequencies. Diseases which cause trouble with movement can result from the circuits in our brain becoming disconnected. Research shows that vibrations can help sync these circuits back together, improving symptoms and healing patients. These vibrations can be single pitches, the most effective is a frequency of 40Hz. In 2009 research led by Lauren K.King in Ontario, showed that using vibroacoustic therapy 5 on patients with Parkinson’s disease for a short period of time improves their symptoms. They experience less rigidity in their movements, walk with more control and manage to take larger steps. This is because listening to music activates the motor cortex in our brain which is responsible for movement. This can often cause us to tap our foot to the rhythm of a song or sing along with the lyrics.


The relationship of music and its ability to improve memory is successfully conveyed in the film ‘Alive Inside’ produced by a social worker, Dan Cohen, who helped people with dementia in a nursing home (5). Cohen played songs to certain patients which had already suffered from trouble with speaking or remembering their past. He constructed a personalised playlist for each of the patients which consisted of songs they used to enjoy. Their responses to the songs were very positive. Many of the patients began dancing or even singing the lyrics of their favourite songs. Since listening to music reactivates the limbic system, many patients also recalled a time when they listened to these songs. This shows how music could potentially help patients with memory loss due to illnesses like Dementia and Alzheimer’s. Once their condition worsens they could still potentially remember certain events or family members that they associate with a piece of music. Music therapy is already being used in many nursing homes around the world, helping patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Not only does it improve their memory but also provides a source of enjoyment for patients so that they have an easier time at the nursing home, experiencing less anxiety and potentially suffering from less symptoms of depression which they may be experiencing at any stage of the disease. They can enjoy listening to music with their loved ones around them during troubling times or alone simply to calm down.


However, as mentioned before, this doesn’t have to be music but it can be a single pitch. In a TED talk in 2017, Dr. Lee Bartel talked about his research regarding patients with Alzheimers and their healing process using vibroacoustic therapy. He exposed his patients to sound stimulation, in a chair embedded with speakers, of vibrations of 40Hz for 30 minutes twice or three times a week for a certain amount of time, achieving tremendous results. A patient with Alzheimers said she could recall the names of her grandchildren easier and overall showed an improvement in maintaining conversations and remembering recent activities (6). He conducted more experiments with this method of treatment and it all showed an improvement in test results. However, this was only shown to work for a short amount of time and could only slow down the development of certain symptoms of the disease, which is still very good progress. Therefore, the question arises: can we use this type of therapy to completely cure serious illnesses like Alzheimers?


As of today, vibroacoustic therapy is used to mainly reduce symptoms, evoke relaxation and reduce stress, but scientists are still working on developing this further to potentially do more than just slow down the development of a disease. Music therapy is a great way to slow down these symptoms as it's painless and not that time consuming. It can be an enjoyable experience and is definitely an improvement to laying in the hospital for weeks on end and consuming a lot of medication.


Bibliography

  1. Shepherd, B. (2022, December 15). How does music affect your brain? LiveScience. from https:// 1 www.livescience.com/how-does-music-affect-your-brain

  2. Lehrer, J. (2011, January 19). The Neuroscience of Music. Wired. https://www.wired.com/2011/01/the- neuroscience-of-music/

  3. Novotney, A. (2013, November). Music as medicine. Monitor on Psychology. https://www.apa.org/monitor/ 2013/11/music

  4. Novotney, A. (2013, November). Music as medicine. Monitor on Psychology. https://www.apa.org/monitor/ 2013/11/music

  5. Fabiny, A. (2015, February 14). Music can boost memory and mood. Harvard Health. https:// 6 www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/music-can-boost-memory-and mood#:~:text=Listening%20to%20and%20performing%20music,us%20lay%20down%20new%20ones

  6. TEDxTalks, 2017 November, Music Medicine: Sound At A Cellular Level, Dr. Lee Bartel, TEDxCollingwood. 5 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wDZgzsQh0Dw&t=812s


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