What has music got to do with health?
It was day one of 2nd year today and a little bit of an anti-climax. I have an assignment due in a fortnight that I do not understand, and I start my new placement next week. So, I decided that instead of knuckling down to get my head around these things, I’d knuckle down on the impact of music on health again. This time I’ll go through the 5 dimensions of health; Social, Physical, Emotional Cognitive and Cultural (SPECC) in a little more detail. Once again, while I do use research and knowledge from mental health authorities, these blogs are intended to be discussion points and are not presented as expert opinion.
So, what has music got to do with health?
Social – You’ve been to a gig before, right? They are incredible. There are so many types of live music performance and each of them have unique qualities that impact on our social health. From the intimate, dingy basement gigs to big, summer festivals and from Friday night pub shows to sit-down, theatre performances. Each live music event creates an individual ambience that cannot be recreated even by the same performers, playing the same songs in the same venue on the following evening. There will always be subtle differences that you may or may not even notice. Live performances are a one-off opportunity to see and hear and feel something magical. In the pub you can chat to your mates while you vibe to your local songsters and even get a little chinwag with the band during the interval. At festivals (aw man, I miss festivals), you’re dirty and smelly and you’ve barely slept all weekend, but Biffy are on the main stage in and hour so you gather your pals, stuff a can of warm beer into your pants to try and elude the gate attendant before pushing your way to the front of the stage. And when the band walks out, you’re filled with an all elation that has no rival. There’s a special kind of comradery between festival goers. The unspoken yet ne’er faltering vigilance to raise a fallen peer to their feet when they trip beneath the horde. Your new mosh pit mates, a relationship with zero longevity, are the best pals you’ve ever punched. And the campsite banter literally does not stop, but you tear yourself away to try and squeeze in an hour’s sleep before the arena opens again at noon.
Physical – I think this aspect is probably the most hidden because people tend associate physical health with weight, diet and disease, and yeah sure…of course it’s all that. But there’s quite a bit more to physical health. My childhood drum teacher had arthritis in his wrists. This is literally the biggest fear for a musician (and I suspect the inspiration for the flippant recurring lyric, I’d break all my fingers if you wanted me to, which appears in several of my songs). But he kept playing. And he kept practising. He was determined not to let this painful ailment get the better of him. So as not to have his talent and passion taken from him, yes, but presumably also to prolong his independence. Driving, washing dishes, etc. Playing a musical instrument exercises fine and gross motor skills. Skills that we develop during childhood by learning to walk and play and clap our hands, but why does it
need to stop there? If you’ve got sore wrists…exercise them. To be clear, I’m not saying drumming cures arthritis but maintaining dexterity will help. Also, without music, there would be no dance. And dance is awesome. Dance again influences and is influenced by the 5 dimensions of health, hence the existence of Zumba and every other evening dance class, but I guess that’s for another blogger to rant about. Disclaimer: Animal was not my childhood drum teacher.
Emotional – The presence of emotion in music is indisputable so I won’t stick around here for too long. Music is written with and for emotion. All music. So obviously it can be used to ease or enhance specific emotions. To help you relax or to get you pumped for a night out or a job interview. Remember that festival with your mates? Remember Jurassic Park? Remember your wedding day? Remember Disneyland? Remember crying into the bottom of a bottle of cheap red wine when your last relationship broke down? Wasn’t music always there?
Cognitive – I’m excited to talk about this element. I’ll dive right in. When humans listen to music neurons begin to spark in their brains. These are the electrical pulses that send information communicating with other parts of the brain and to nerves, muscles and glands throughout the body. Neurons develop and regress through many stages of our lives and are responsible for literally everything we do and are. When we listen to music, specific neurons are fired targeting and engaging several parts of the brain including the hippocampus which is associated with memory and the limbic system that regulates our emotional responses. This is why music is used in therapy for people living with dementia.
But when a musician plays…man! The brain ignites like fireworks. Playing an instrument engages the entire brain across both hemispheres encompassing the creative right and mathematical, linguistic left. And sure, this is a physical response but naturally, exercising the brain in this way promotes neurological growth leading to higher cognitive function. Many patients with chronic pain also report appeasement from listening to music, presumably due to the communication of these neurons. I find that incredibly exciting. This means that music can be used to increase your ability to concentrate, problem solve and even function a little better in social situations. It’s important to note that I’m talking about an increased cognitive capacity and not some sort magic pill that makes musicians smarter than (what I like to call) not-yet-musicians. There are plenty of dumb musicians. However, the you you are without playing a musical instrument, processes memory and problem solving at a slightly slower rate than the you you’d be if you did. If your head is a little pickled by this paragraph, you should probably get your headphones on and engage that limbic system. Chill out a bit.
Cultural – Again, it’s quite clear to see music’s role on us culturally and differing culture’s role in music. Culture has created genres and vice versa. Punk music comes from the disenchanted youth of 1970’s Britain, speaking of disdain for the upper class, the establishment, and the mainstream. Literally music to the ears of the common young Brit of the age. I’m not going to go through every music genre and its cultural relevance because there are far too many to cover and I’d also be at risk of misrepresenting some of those cultures. I grew up in Scotland in the Noughties and so Idlewild, Frightened Rabbit, Arab Strap, Belle and Sebastian, Camera Obscura, Biffy Clyro, Travis, Mogwai and King Creosote all speak to me culturally. They speak in my accent. They’ve been to the places I’ve been and care about the things I care about. And sure, not everyone my age from Scotland listens to this stuff but it fits with my narrative.
Look, I know not everyone necessarily cares about this stuff in the same way that I do, just as I care very little for sport of any kind. I listen to music in everything I do. It helps me work harder. It helps me focus. It makes me happy and it makes me cry. Music has given me more friends than I can begin to count and continues to introduce more every day. This is why I believe music to be one of the most formidable weapons in the fight for good health.