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Music as Therapy: Music, Movement, Cognition!

The Sound of Music
Whether you real­ize it or not, you already know a lot when it comes to music. Accord­ing to Daniel Lev­itin, for­mer record pro­duc­er, cur­rent neu­ro­sci­en­tist, psy­chol­o­gist and author of This Is Your Brain On Music, you know:

  • how your body responds to famil­iar or spe­cif­ic tunes
  • your brain can dif­fer­en­ti­ate between inter­na­tion­al rhythms (Latin, Indi­an, Ara­bic…)
  • bits and pieces of song lyrics that are mem­o­rized
  • spe­cif­ic songs can con­jure up mem­o­ries
  • a song can impact your mood

If I hear cer­tain types of music, my body starts mov­ing in synch to the rhythm, and if there are famil­iar words, I start singing along.

I teach yoga and move­ment, not some­thing you would imme­di­ate­ly asso­ciate with music, yet they are the very rea­son I became inter­est­ed in Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain On Music. The peo­ple in my class­es are deal­ing with aging and are inter­est­ed in build­ing their bal­ance and mus­cle strength. Many of these peo­ple have mobil­i­ty or cog­ni­tive issues, or both. It turns out, music fac­tors in quite heav­i­ly in help­ing them to move, to bal­ance, and to think. I knew this expe­ri­en­tial­ly from my teach­ing and from attend­ing work­shops, but it took Levitin’s book to clar­i­fy how the brain process­es music.

We Got Rhythm

Lev­itin begins by explain­ing the com­po­si­tion of music for those who do not pos­sess a musi­cal back­ground – what it is and the vocab­u­lary we use to define it. I latched on to the last part of the last sen­tence of his open­ing chap­ter:

While I believe tim­bre is now at the cen­ter of our appre­ci­a­tion of music, rhythm has held supreme pow­er over lis­ten­ers for much longer. [ital­ics added by me]

It is rhythm that makes it pos­si­ble for a per­son with Parkinson’s Dis­ease to get up out of their seat and dance their way across the floor. As the Parkinson’s brain process­es music, the rhythm seems to coerce and cajole the move­ment sig­nal from start to fin­ish, tra­vers­ing the nerve from top to bot­tom, from the brain to the leg, foot and toes. I have seen this hap­pen count­less times in Dance for Parkinson’s class­es, where the class­es are taught as dance class­es, not as ther­a­py class­es. You can see a dance class in action in this 2011 PBS video inter­view.

Lev­itin details how move­ment is often wed­ded to the process of cre­at­ing and play­ing music, and almost always is part of the lis­ten­ing process. Take notice of what you do the next time you lis­ten to music. Do you tap a foot, move a hand as if con­duct­ing, nod your head to the beat? Through­out, Lev­itin ref­er­ences bits and pieces of com­po­si­tions, from clas­si­cal to rock to jazz, nurs­ery songs, folk and more. He unrav­els the three aspects of music that most of us are uncon­scious­ly aware of – rhythm, tem­po and meter –but that are cru­cial to our appre­ci­a­tion of music. Rhythm is “the rela­tion­ship between the length of one note and anoth­er”, or how long each note is held. Tem­po is the pac­ing of the music, “how quick­ly or slow­ly it goes by.” And meter reflects the empha­sis of the notes as they are grouped togeth­er.

Rhythm is the over­rid­ing force in my week­ly vol­un­teer ses­sions at a local assist­ed liv­ing com­mu­ni­ty. Twen­ty indi­vid­u­als and I gath­er for an hours seat­ed Sun­day songfest. Pop­u­lar tunes from the 40, 50s and 60s play while I assist indi­vid­u­als in arm move­ments that flow in con­cert with each song’s rhythm. As I hold a person’s hands, they guide the speed, pace and direc­tion of our com­bined move­ment.

Accord­ing to an exper­i­ment con­duct­ed by Lev­itin and a col­league, most peo­ple are quite com­pe­tent at dis­cern­ing and recall­ing tem­po. Turns out that a song’s tem­po sets off an emo­tion­al cue in our brains – slow­er songs tele­graph sad­ness, faster songs seem upbeat and hap­py.

For a fur­ther expla­na­tion of sound, view the What Is Sound? video on the Twig Sci­ence site.

Music and the Brain

While mul­ti­ple areas of our brains engage with music, spe­cif­ic areas orches­trate our emo­tion­al response to what we hear. The cere­bel­lum con­tains over half the brain’s neu­rons, in no small part because it has the task of man­ag­ing nov­el­ty and move­ment. In addi­tion, it is also respon­si­ble, along with the amyg­dala and nucle­us accum­bens, for our emo­tion­al response to music.

While a song’s words may be stored in our hip­pocam­pus, the cere­bel­lum stores the song’s pac­ing, pluck­ing out this infor­ma­tion each time we sing or lis­ten to the song.

In Levitin’s les­son on the brain, he lists the many parts that engage in the process of par­tic­i­pat­ing in music. While lis­ten­ing, in addi­tion to the lan­guage cen­ters, oth­er active areas include the cochlear nuclei, brain stem, cere­bel­lum, audi­to­ry cor­tices, hip­pocam­pus and sec­tions of the frontal lobe.

Some­one who is per­form­ing is also engag­ing their frontal lobes, motor cor­tex and sen­so­ry cor­tex, and if they are read­ing music in the process then their visu­al cor­tex is active.

What is going on when the words to a song make it dif­fi­cult to con­cen­trate on move­ment? After teach­ing my first seat­ed yoga ses­sion at a local retire­ment com­mu­ni­ty, one of the par­tic­i­pants said she liked the music but found the few pieces with words had made it dif­fi­cult for her to con­cen­trate on what she was doing.

Some­time today, try a brief exper­i­ment. Take stock of your feel­ings for a moment and then play your favorite bit of music and allow your­self to rev­el in it. What did you feel? How did you respond? Did you dance? Did you remain still? Were you by your­self? What impact did the music have on you?

– Lau­rie Bar­tels writes the Neu­rons Fir­ing blog to cre­ate for her­self “the grad­u­ate course I’d love to take if it exist­ed as a pro­gram”. She has been teach­ing for 30 years and is cur­rent­ly the Low­er School Tech­nol­o­gy Coor­di­na­tor at The Foote School in New Haven, CT. When not teach­ing kids or oth­er teach­ers, she facil­i­tates move­ment and yoga ses­sions for peo­ple who are deal­ing with mobil­i­ty or cog­ni­tion issues or both.

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