Health and Wellness

Can Music Really Help Us Relax?

By Graham Verndon

Many believe strongly that music can actually heal our mind, body and soul. Whether or not you take this view, there’s no denying that music has a powerful ability to shape our environment. This story explores how.

In 2011, Marconi Union, a band out of Manchester, UK, created a piece of ambient music called “Weightless” in collaboration with the British Academy of Sound Therapy. It soon became famous as the most relaxing music ever recorded. A scientific study back then, and further studies since, demonstrated that its slow, shimmering movement, achieved through a combination of several musical principles, had a truly calming effect.

While the song’s claim to the throne is difficult to prove definitively, the effects of calm relaxing music are undeniable. Modern science has proven what we’ve known for countless millennia: music powerfully affects our mood and well-being.

“We humans are a musical species no less than a linguistic one, “ says Oliver Saks, the late celebrated author of many books on the magic of human consciousness, in Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. “Our auditory systems, our nervous systems are, indeed, exquisitely tuned for music. The emotional responses to music can be unbelievably complex and mysterious and deep.”

Experts like Sacks have enumerated many fascinating effects music has on the human brain. Thanks to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and similar brain imaging technologies, scientists can now isolate the regions of our gray matter that are engaged when processing music. It turns out there are many. Music doesn’t just affect one central area, but rather, a whole cascade of activity lights up several parts of the brain almost simultaneously.

This phenomenon is explored in the best-selling book, This is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel J. Levitin, neuroscientist, Dean of Social Sciences at The Minerva Schools at KGI, and former lead of the Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition, and Expertise at McGill University.

“When listening to music, there is an exquisite orchestration of brain regions, involving both the oldest and newest parts of the human brain, and regions as far apart as the cerebellum in the back of the head and the frontal lobes just behind your eyes,” Levitin writes in the book.

Among the areas that light up are regions of the mesolimbic system that involve arousal, pleasure, the transmission of opioids and the production of dopamine. The cerebellum and basal ganglia are active with music listening, and for many years, scientists believed these areas of the brain were only involved with processing music’s rhythm and meter. More recently, it’s understood that the cerebellum is also involved in regulating emotion through connections with the frontal lobe and limbic system.

A recent meta-analysis of 400 studies in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences concluded that music can dramatically lower the level of the stress hormone cortisol and reduce anxiety by up to 65 percent. Amazingly, relaxing music can even slow our heartbeat.

A normal resting heart rate is between 60 and 100 beats a minute. “Weightless” begins with a rhythm of 60 beats a minute and gradually slows down to 50 beats. Over the span of around five minutes of listening in a mysterious process known as entrainment, the nervous system of the listener will attempt to slow to match that beat, just as a baby’s heartbeat will attempt to meet the rate of her mother’s.

Aldous Huxley famously said, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” In fact, perhaps music has the edge.

Here are some suggestions for similar style relaxing music channels on Calm Radio. Try Calm Radio's Sleep channel. Calm Radio Ambient I Spaces and Ambient II Things free music channels are wonderful sources for calm and relaxing ambient music.

Sources:

Books:

  • This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin
  • Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Saks

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