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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30 thoughts on “Music Therapy: Striking a Primal Chord”

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  1. Very interesting, I play the drums and guitar althought, im pretty sure playing the drums like I do raise my BP hahah

  2. why else would karaoke be so popular?? Singing is good for you!

    I hardly ever listen to the radio or CDs, but I love going to see musical theater and concerts, and we also have some mighty talented street musicians here. There’s also the aforementioned karaoke, and both of us play the piano at home AND belong to a choir. 🙂

    1. hey? pplz check? my channel pplz ill show you how to dwaolnod music for free you can get any songz you whant no viruses or spam and it really works ill show you step by step!!!!! so check it out!!!

  3. Last Monday I tweeked my back. 3 days later a salsa band was playing in the park nearby. Of course, I couldn’t keep still. Whilst shakin my rump to the groovy beat, something popped back into place & I was Healed!
    can I get an “amen”?!

  4. Trancendental indeed — this is why I often pick music based on how much it feels like flying.

  5. I get that transcendental feeling when I paint and sculpt- any form of art is truly expanding to the mind. It makes us human.

  6. I often like to go back and listen to the music I listened to as a kid. It never, ever gets old. The memories they bring are both awesome and not-so-awesome but that’s just part of it process.

  7. I’ve noticed a long time ago the effect that music has on my emotions and well-being.

    Every now and then I’ll hear a song I haven’t heard in a while that I was listening to during a really fun time in my life and it always gives me an energy boost!

    I’m a musician as well and know how effective it is in getting me into the “flow” state.

    1. Darrin

      I can completely relate. When I was younger, I went through a phase where all I listened to was old school rap. Every time I hear an old Dr Dre, Eazy-E or Snoop track, I get amped. It’s the best music (for me) to work out to!

  8. Great post. Music has always been known to not only make us relaxed, but completely alter our mood based on the type of music and how we respond to it.

    Everyone’s reaction to music is different and people have different responses to different kinds of music. That’s why one type of music might be extremely relaxing to some while it could cause a headache for others.

    It all depends on our personal preferences and based on those we can listen to music that can greatly reduce our stress and help contribute to a great quality of life.

    Ken Rogers

  9. I don’t know what it is about a chord that can bring so much emotion to me sometimes. I am particularly partial to the minor chords and enjoy a lot of acoustic and alternative folk rock.

    Music does something to me . . something wonderful.

  10. Maybe you could add a live music component to Primal Con 2011 – around a beach campfire maybe ???

  11. The riff to Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog has been known to cure migraines.

  12. On the other hand, music is sometimes an irritant. When I am at a park or the beach or anywhere in nature I find it very annoying to have someone’s loud music playing. Totally destroys the experience of nature for me. And why do they think the rest of us want to listen to their choice of music?

    Also those annoying people who play their car music so loud the base throbs though the whole neighborhood.

    Then there was the time we were in a huge parking lot to see fireworks to celebrate the 4th of July. A nearby car had on music so loud their car was vibrating. I thought for sure they would turn it off when the fireworks started but noooooooo.

    Okay, I am though being crabby. Think I will go listen to some music….

  13. I love listening to almost all kinds of music. But for the last 3 years I have also been playing it, thanks to the ukulele I was given one Christmas. There’s something about actually playing an instrument that I find incredibly relaxing and centering, and I can strum for hours sometimes. Others around me don’t seem to mind the sound of the uke, either. When I add my “singing” it’s a different story, unfortunately!

  14. find a drum circle for a real primal experience–nothing like the sounds of many drums and a few flutes!

  15. I used to play the piano for 3 years and hated it. But, that was when I was about 12 years old…

    I now can not wait to learn how to play the piano again and the guitar. I love listening to music that is pleasing such as Jack Johnson – by far my favorite artist. It is an incredible stress reliever thats for sure.

    It would be a lot of fun making music out of all natural stuff taken from the beach or the forest etc. The music of raindrops and thunder is very pleasing as well.

  16. Great post, Mark!

    Being a guitarist, I’m a little biased, but I believe everyone should learn how to play the guitar even if you’re just banging on the damn thing!

    In all seriousness, learning to play any instrument has a magnificent way of working out the brain and soul simultaneously.

    I picture Grok as more of a drummer… like Animal from the Muppets.

  17. Quite an interesting post! I’m a professional musician, playing the oboe in several regional orchestras. I had the wonderful experience of teaching for a week this summer at a band camp for adult musicians. The average age of the ‘campers’ was 69! I’ll turn 50 soon, and I left there with lots of hope for my future, and the firm conviction that playing an instrument is a very healthy exercise….especially a wind instrument! (Sorry to my string & keyboard colleagues!)

  18. Making music is the best anti-depressant ever. Jamming with other musicians raises it to the next level. If I didn’t have my voice and my instruments, I could have a good time beating a hollow log with a couple of sticks. Very primal!

  19. i love this post
    whenever i’;m feeling down, one of the first things i do is listen to some of my favourite songs…never fails to cheer me up!

  20. Agree with everything said, even the sometimes slightly negative aspects. I play guitar and recorded a few of my songs for which I had to add a bass line (which I don’t play). The buzz and sense of satisfaction I got from learning to do this was amazingly uplifting and lasted for weeks!

  21. So pleased you mentioned the live experience! Like synthetic foods, music shared through an amp/ loudspeaker (whether large and lots of them at a concert, or tiny in earbuds) is an artificial experience and remains 2D. Live/ acoustic/ unplugged music with instruments and the voice create energy and connection not possible through loudspeakers. So… go to a live concert! Try an orchestra, choir, jazz or community band, or make it truly special and attend a chamber music concert! Anything without electronics alongside our normal enjoyable fodder of rock/ pop bands will provide for a healthy communal experience. Especially drum circles!

  22. Hey – there this was written in 2010? – hope someone is still monitoring to answer this question – I have been a musician and educator for about 60 years and I still can’t see how we developed our musical abilities in a “Primal Environment” – I haven’t been able to wrap my mind around why music has the ability to affect us as profoundly as it does or why we have evolved those abilities in the non complex musical environment of our ancient ancestors – I understand that the ability to process sound in general was important to survival but beyond that I draw a blank — from just before Bach to today our ability to make and store musical info and thought that has been uncovered hidden in our primal brains has astounded me – it’s played a large part in moving me from agnostic trends to Christianity