“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything” ~Plato
I grew up in the UK in the late ’90s in a culture of music and dance. In my teens, I indulged in the cult-like following of house music and the dance scene. It often occurred to me that the beat was like a drug in and of itself. I would get lost in the magic of the music and fully understood why those children followed the pied piper as I would gaze up at the DJ like some kind of new-worldly God. I loved to sing too. Music spoke to me through the words and melodies that both haunted and soothed me.
Fast forward to the catalyst of my trauma. It didn’t occur to me until long after, that while I was in the depths of losing myself, I also lost my music. I was so wired with work, covert abuse and responsibilities that I should never have allowed myself to take on, I lost my music. I stopped dancing. At what point this part of me died, I cannot pinpoint. So insidious is the demise of your soul in these dark times that it is very hard to identify the exact moment the light went out.
I can tell you when I got my music back though. Like a bus hit me. I remembered who I was. I remembered my music. I danced again.
Music and the brain
Music is thought to be one of the earliest forms of human communication. Without rhythm, without words, without music, there would be no language. We pass on stories and wisdom through our generations with music.
Music has become a hot topic of research in neuroscience. Listening to music has been proven to reduce stress, soothe pain, energise the body and regulate hormones (1,3). Even listening to sad music has been shown to have positive therapeutic effects. Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist and author, states that sad music causes the release of prolactin, the soothing hormone that expresses milk in breastfeeding mothers. IGA (immunoglobulin A) and natural killer cells are released, increasing immunity and cancer-fighting cells within the body. While cortisol, a stress hormone is reduced (3, 4). Oxytocin is elevated in singers, particularly when improvising. Oxytocin is highly associated with bonding and love (4). Music officially makes us love more!
Music has been shown to increase volume and connectivity in the corpus callosum (the structure that connects the left and right hemispheres like a bridge). Improved communication between the two hemispheres has been associated with faster thought processing, learning and improved memory in all areas. This ultimately enhances academic learning as well as artistic creativity. It is interesting that music has often been considered less important than science or maths in the academic setting (indeed funding is often radically cut in favour of the sciences), yet music actually accelerates the ability of the brain to retain this information (3). Musical education in schools is of critical importance in our society, as it improves social and cognitive development in children. Research has shown that the lasting effects of early musical education include sustained improvement in memory, better hearing, better motor and verbal skills and improved mental health (4).
That is just listening to music. If you compose your own music or learn to play an instrument, your ability to organise, strategise and perform executive thinking is improved (2). For those of you thinking: I could never learn to play an instrument. Think again. It is a misconception that only people born with talent can be musicians. In a study on talent versus hard work, it was shown that your ability to achieve and perform in music depends on the hours you put into it, not the inherent talent (3). You may need to work a bit harder than some, but you can achieve the same results.
Music affects multiple areas of the brain. The limbic system (learning, memory and emotion), the area of the prefrontal cortex that deals with empathy and altruism, and importantly, the dopamine reward system (motivation, gratification and addiction) (4). Pretty much every area of the brain is affected by music. In fact, so diverse is the effect of music on the brain that there is not one specific area we can associate it with.
Music therapy structured for rehabilitation is evolving in the field of alternative therapy. Many studies have shown increases in neuroplasticity to such an extent that movement recovery in patients following stroke, traumatic brain injury and Parkinson's disease is significantly improved with music therapy (1, 2, 4). The evocation of memory and emotion through music has been attributed to improvements in mood disorders and neuropsychiatric disorders such as Alzheimer's and autism (2, 4).
The science demonstrating music as beneficial to our brains, physical and mental healing and psychological health is overwhelming. Using music for healing and growth from birth, even in utero, through to your death bed has overwhelming benefits.
Music is a part of my day. Every damn day. There is no doubt in my mind I could not have healed without the help of my music. Finding my music again was one of the huge steps in rediscovering myself after “the unpleasantness”. I listened to a lot of old house music that inspired me to find that girl that danced for hours on end in a trance of utopian surrender. It reminded me of the days I would have wild hair, big earrings and funky makeup. I started wearing makeup again. I started to care about fashion again. I became her again.
I listened to sad music often. Daisy Gray. She triggered the desperation and pain of unrequited love and betrayal. So much of her haunting voice spoke to a place in me that I knew would never really heal, but somehow soothed the shards of glass in my soul. Then when I started to get better, Bob Marley reminded me of the reality that life delivers pain. Unavoidably. And everything will, indeed, be all right. The meditation music that accompanied my hours of deep introflection and healing took me to another level of surrender.
I think the important thing in music for healing is the selection of your own playlist. I cannot say “these songs worked for me”. It is about what resonates with your memories, your experiences, your triggers, the path of your healing. There is so much emotional significance to music that it must be relevant to you to have an impact. The beauty of the modern world is that social media, Spotify, YouTube etc. makes accessing music so easy and almost always free.
I avoided the songs that I associated with my relationship because I wanted to move forward. I did not want to spend another second in the energy of that dark time. For others, it may be necessary to sit with that for a while, to reminisce, to process before you let go. I don’t know. I can only speak on my own experience.
It's funny, I would listen to new music so that I could create new memories and facilitate my healing. Yet now when I listen to that same music, the memories of my pain and where I was at the time of hearing that music comes flooding back like a new associated memory. Sometimes I hear a certain song and cry, remembering how damn sad and broken I was when I had used that very song to pull myself out of the darkness. When I remember that sad broken woman, it just shows me how far I have come. That music is now so nostalgic for me of my journey. Laying down new networks and changing the narrative. A story of my healing, not my trauma. A story maybe only I will ever understand. A beautiful story that only I ever need to understand.
Maratos A, Gold C, Wang X, Crawford M. Music therapy for depression. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2008, Issue 1
Trimble, M., & Hesdorffer, D. (2017). Music and the brain: the neuroscience of music and musical appreciation. BJPsych international, 14(2), 28–31.
Levitin, Daniel (2019). This is your brain on music. Penguin UK
Harvey, Alan (2017). Music, Evolution and the Harmony of the Soul. Oxford University Press