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News for August 2012

The Importance of Sound in our Lives and in the Universe

"Music has touched the human soul across all boundaries of time, space, and genre....Perhaps, in its vibratory nature, music opens us to a greater appreciation of our essential connectedness to the cosmos, our oneness with all that is." Balfour M. Mount (Canadian Professor)
"Healing occurs when we are drawn into the present moment and away from the ruminations about past and future that consistently dominate our lives. It requires a letting go of literal, rational, linear patterns of thought and an acceptance of an intuitive, imaginal, metaphoric way of experiencing reality (expressed in some traditions as a shift from head to heart). It is associated with a sense of enriched personal meaning and a sense of connectedness. We may experience these healing connections at four levels: at an inner level, between ego and "Self"/"Deep Centre"/the essential self (the "individuation" of Carl Jung); secondly, healing connections with others, in community (the I/thou relating of Martin Buber); thirdly, connectedness to the phenomenal world, as perceived through our senses -- for example, in response to music, nature, long distance running, the creative arts; finally, through a sense of connection to ultimate meaning/God/"the More," however that is perceived by the individual.

Music, when it is truly healing, may be acting through any or all of these four paths to cut through our carefully constructed defences, thus liberating a deeper appreciation and acceptance of mystery and the potential for healing that lies within. Newtonian physics told us that at base we are particulate; quantum physics, that we are vibratory. It seems that the reality is that we are not either/or, but both/and. Perhaps, in its vibratory nature, music opens us to a greater appreciation of our essential connectedness to the cosmos, our oneness with all that is".
Balfour M. Mount, from La Scena Musicale, Vol10, No 1

A modern astrophysicist, Trinh Xuan Thuan, has written that "if the cosmos is vast it is by no means silent. Nature delights in continuously sending us her notes of music". To understand this "music", in modern terms, is to understand that nature communicates to us in the language of wave patterns: sound waves, light waves, electromagnetic waves, etc. We were built to understand the basics of melody, harmony and rhythm of music. Unlike language, which is very culture specific, music is universal. Sandra Trehub, Dept of Psychology, University of Toronto, in 12 pieces of research, ca 1986-2001 demonstrated, for example, that babies show superior memories for music constructed along conventional lines of major/minor scales and regular rhythms.

Because we are one quivering mass of harmonious vibrations some believe that illness is a symptom of disharmony, e.g. "The body is held together by sound-the presence of disease indicates that some sounds have gone out of tune.” - Dr. Deepak Chopra. Music therapy is an allied health profession, consisting of an interpersonal process in which a trained music therapist uses music and all of its facets, physical, emotional, mental, social, aesthetic, and spiritual, to help clients to improve or maintain their health across various domains (e.g. cognitive functioning, motor skills, emotional and affective development, behavior and social skills, and quality of life) by using music experiences (e.g. free improvisation, singing, songwriting, listening to and discussing music, moving to music) to achieve treatment goals and objectives. It is considered both an art and a science, with a qualitative and quantitative research literature base incorporating areas such as clinical therapy, biomusicology, musical acoustics, music theory, psychoacoustics, embodied music cognition, aesthetics of music, and comparative musicology.

Music therapy goes back to biblical times, when David played the harp to rid King Saul of a bad spirit. As early as 400 B.C., Hippocrates, Greek father of medicine, played music for his mental patients. Aristotle described music as a force that purified the emotions. In the thirteenth century, Arab hospitals contained music-rooms for the benefit of the patients. In the United States, Native American medicine men often employed chants and dances as a method of healing patients.

Music therapy as we know it began in the aftermath of World Wars I and II. Musicians would travel to hospitals, particularly in the United Kingdom, and play music for soldiers suffering from war-related emotional and physical trauma. Music has been shown to affect portions of the brain. Part of this therapy is the ability of music to affect emotions and social interactions. More recent research suggests that music can increase patient's motivation and positive emotions. Current research hypothesizes that music therapy helps stroke victims recover faster and with more success by increasing the patient's positive emotions and motivation. Music has proven useful in the recovery of motor skills. According to a 2009 Cochrane review of 23 clinical trials, it was found that some music may reduce heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure in patients with coronary heart disease. Benefits included a decrease in blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of anxiety in heart patients.

"Music stimulation increases endorphin release and this decreases the need for medication. It also provides a distraction from pain and relieves anxiety" -- from research conducted at an Austin, Texas medical center. Music is now used in surgical and dental procedures to reduce the pain and anxiety of the patients. Of 59,000 patients 97 percent said that music helped them relax in post op situations. "It has been found that the rhythmics of the human organism function utterly harmonically -- that is, the frequencies of pulse, breathing, blood circulation, etc., as well as their combined activities." ~ Rudolf Haase, German musicologist.

While the power of music to touch the soul is both existential and subjective, its effects on our physical and mental activity have been well-researched. According to The Power of Sound, (Healing Arts Press), music triggers at least three neuro- physical processes:
1. Music moves through the brain’s auditory cortex directly to the center of the limbic system. It can help create new neuropathways in the brain as well.
2. Music activates the flow of stored memory and imagined material across the corpus collosum (the bridge between the left and right hemispheres of the brain) helping the two work in harmony.
3. Music excites peptides in the brain and stimulate the production of endorphins, which are natural opiates secreted by the hypothalamus, which elevates mood and emotion. In a recent study conducted by brain researcher Prof. Manfred Spitzer of Ulm, Germany, new nerve cells were discovered to form by engaging actively in music. The study concluded that it doesn’t matter if you sing in the shower or play concert piano – music de-activates those places in the brain designed for fear and stress. The climate of making music is the ideal place for these nerve cells to develop.

Oxytocin, produced when singing in chirs for example, generates a sense of satisfying relaxation. It is a peptide. Oxytocin has a short half-life in the brain - it’s gone in just a matter of minutes. But close, positive long-term relationships may offer us a relatively steady source of oxytocin release; every hug friendly touch, and affectionate moment may prime this neurochemical balm a bit. When oxytocin releases again and again as happens when we spend good time with people who love us we seem to reap the long-term health benefits of human affection. Through listening to soothing music such as classical and instrumental selections it has been found that thirty minutes exposure to this kind of music has released endorphins that have an effect equal to that of the muscle relaxer pill known as Valium.

Finally and on a more philosophical note Schopenhauer speaks of music as being an alternate reality created from the same Will, a reality that he claims could even exist in the absence of our physical world. Adapting Leibniz's claim about music, Schopenhauer describes it as the mind philosophising without knowing it. If we are likely ever to catch a glimpse of the world behind the physical, music is the only possible way to do it. Consider Schopenhauer's characterization of the composer: "The composer reveals the innermost nature of the world, and expresses the profoundest wisdom in a language that his reasoning faculty does not understand."

Thus music does more than express the inexpressible in ourselves; it gives us entrance into a supernatural world of feeling and interconnection with all things. Except at the rare high points of our lives, its joys and despairs are too exalted for us; they are not ours; they belong to gods and heroes. In music eternity is born into our feelings. Music can do for the emotions what mythology and poetry do for the imagination and philosophy for the intellect–it brings us into touch with a more magnificent life, for which we have perhaps the potency, but not the opportunity here. And in doing this, music performs the greatest service.