How Music Can Make You Better
Indre Viskontas is an opera singer and a neuroscientist. She’s professor of sciences and humanities at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco, and the Creative Director of Pasadena Opera. (sigh… some people just get more done with their days.) Her new book is titled: How Music Can Make You Better.
She says the book is essentially a field guide for how music works and how it affects our brains, our bodies, and how it can affect society.
Many people think sound and music exist independently of us, but that’s not so. Sound occurs only when apprehended by an ear. Answering the strange question: If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?
Viskontas says no. “Because the sound is not in the sound waves. It’s in how the brain turns that information, these factions and compressions of air, into something that we can interpret as a perception, which is how we hear.”
This is why people’s taste in music can vary greatly. It’s also why figuring out what music you love best is critical to tapping into the healing power of sound. When music is meaningful to you, there are many ways in which it can be used to change the body physiologically.
“We can see that people who are about to go in for surgery, for example, if they listened to music that they like, we actually can track the way their body’s physiology shows that they are relaxing. Their heart rate decreases, they have less anxiety, but it has to be music that calms that particular person. So, a lot of people find instrumental or classical music calming, but not everyone.”
Music involves complex systems all over the brain and can repair damaged areas. People who have damaged the left frontal part of their brain, lose the ability to speak. They lose language capacity. Using music as a bridge between singing and talking.
“There’s a specific type of music therapy called Melodic Intonation Therapy, where you literally put sentences into a melody. So, let’s say the person wants to say “Where’s the bathroom?” But they just can’t get it out, because normally that’s what the left hemisphere would be for, and the left hemisphere is damaged. Now let’s say you teach them over time to sing “Where is the bathroom?” And you do that multiple times. Eventually they can sing it before they can say it. A great example is Gabby Giffords relearning how to speak using music.
Alzheimer’s patients also respond to music. There are a couple of different reasons why patients with Alzheimer’s still retain the ability to appreciate, understand, and even connect through music. Many different parts of the brain are involved in our relationship with music. So, it’s more likely that some of these regions are intact and that some of these networks, we can use to bypass the parts of the brain that are degenerating. And that can help us sort of synchronize our, our brains and synchronize some of the activity in our brains and help us feel more connected.
“And to me, that’s really the power of music in patients with Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s this feeling that you can connect with them. You can get access to their humanity through music.”
Music is really strong social glue. We see levels of Oxytocin, which is the attachment hormone, increase when people are making music together. I think a lot of people are missing out on the power of music by not trying to make it themselves. And part of that is because we have now this culture of like, you know, having to be perfect, having to be really great, you know, not wanting to embarrass yourself by making a silly sound. I hope that with a lot of these music making tools now that are available. I hope that that will encourage more people to participate in music making and not just be passive listeners.”
Viskontas encourages us to use music to design a better life. Music can catalyze emotions we’re interested in cultivating. It can sharpen our minds, bestow energy and relieve stress. Music can heal us.
“For me, A Beautiful World would be one in which everybody feels that they are meaningful participants in society, that they add something that is important, and that they can feel connected to others and, and the rest of the world.”