Music Therapy: Striking a Primal Chord

Maybe it’s summer’s more casual influence, but these Friday posts have established a certain trend lately, don’t you think? Forest bathing, enriched environment… On Tuesday I just couldn’t help myself with the Primal leisure post. It’s the good life – Grok style. (Yes, summer has definitely gotten to me.) Nonetheless, there’s still plenty of hard science behind these laid-back suggestions. Primal R&R improves your physical as well as mental well-being. To celebrate these last weeks of summer, I thought I’d run with the “good life” theme by highlighting other pastimes that science shows are productive as well as pleasurable. Consider the series a focus on the more “refined” side of health cultivation. After all, it takes more than the most primitive measures to fully actualize our well-being. On the docket today: music as therapy.

I’d venture to say that most of us have experience with music as restorative. After a long day, we put in our favorite CD or turn to a relaxing station as we’re stuck in traffic. It’s comforting, soothing and can help us put aside the stress of the moment. Researchers have latched onto that emotional “release” concept and pursued the physiological and neurological effects of listening to music. In studies, subjects who listened to music before a stressful event showed lower salivary cortisol levels for more than an hour following the event when compared to those facing the same stress without music. Furthermore, not only does music help us reduce stress; it shows evidence of improving cognition and memory function. Most studies demonstrate that it doesn’t matter what kind of music is used as long as it’s preferred by the subjects. (No reason you have to sit through Mozart if that’s not your thing.)

Beyond the easing of everyday stresses, however, researchers have found more profound, curative impacts when they’ve studied music’s effect on those facing serious illnesses and chronic conditions. In addition to alleviating pain in a wide variety of patient groups, music also reduces anxiety in both children and adults facing surgery and illness. Following impressive results from a Cleveland Clinic study, music is also being used to reduce anxiety in patients who need to stay awake during certain brain surgeries. Another study showed that critically ill patients who listened to music for an hour showed increased growth hormone, decreased epinephrine and interleukin-6, as well as lower blood pressure and heart rate. Patients also required decreased amounts of sedative medication. Other research has shown that music improves early recovery in stroke patients, particularly in the areas of focused attention and verbal memory. Incorporating “active” music therapy (including music-inspired free movement and vocal exercises) during physical therapy sessions, researchers found, helps stimulate multiple sensory pathways and improve both the mobility and emotional well-being of Parkinson’s patients. Finally, music also has the power to mitigate the impact of stress on those with cancer by actually boosting anti-tumor response in animal studies.

It’s true that the bulk of the research focuses on listening to music, but it’s pretty clear the headphones don’t represent an entirely passive experience. The music itself appears to strike some deeply embedded Primal chord and sets in motion this impressive constellation of hormonal effects. As I mentioned in Tuesday’s leisure post, archeological evidence shows that our ancient ancestors enjoyed music and made instruments in their free time. The apparent oldest instrument ever recovered dates back approximately 60,000 years ago, but humans likely sang and used unmodified natural objects to make music long before then. It’s little surprise that music can touch us on such an elemental level.

On a personal note, let’s take off the headphones for a minute and think about extending the impact by making it a live experience. Although the social and visual aspects of listening live can muddle a researcher’s experiment, I think it can add to our own enjoyment and potential benefit. Whether it’s a full orchestra or a single street musician, it’s an experience beyond the best sound system. A friend of mine, recalling his years abroad in Germany, says one of the things he misses the most was listening to an older gentleman who played bagpipes every day at 6:00 p.m. in the city center. With the dusky backdrop light, the old world street lamps and the accompanying cathedral chimes at the hour, it’s one of his favorite memories. As for me, I love being at our friends’ cabin and hearing his very talented wife play piano at night. And anything guitar. Preferably outside.

Better yet, there’s the experience of making music yourself. Anyone who’s played an instrument (including voice) for any length of time can attest to the fascination. In the true “zone” moments, I’ve heard, a musician feels like a mere extension of the instrument and an impassioned witness to the music, which feels bigger than the player him/herself. A friend described it to me once as totally letting go of himself in a swirl of sound. The body takes over, I guess, with instinct leading when technical artistry fades into the background.

The meditative dances of hunter-gatherer and other traditional cultures come to mind, but I’ve seen these kinds of experiences even as a spectator. My wife and I attended an amazing vocal performance a few years back. The ensemble finished an amazing piece so dramatic and moving, you could hear a pin drop and feel an electricity hanging in the air while the audience caught its breath before the applause. It’s enough to make me wonder what happens to the body, to the brain in these transcendental moments. What happens when they’re a regular part of one’s life? One thing is for sure: they fill us long after the music has stopped.

Thanks for reading today, and let me know your thoughts. Have a wonderful weekend, everybody!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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