Chances are you’ve used music to wake up, raise your energy and even lift your spirits. Maybe you play drums on the steering wheel or find yourself surprisingly energized out on the dancefloor. Music is not only an energy revitalizer but can also calm you down, lower your blood pressure, focus your energy and reduce your stress levels. How does it work?
It turns out that we synchronize, or entrain, to what’s around us. Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens identified the phenomenon of entrainment back in 1665 when he discovered that the pendulums in a room full of clocks would swing together when left alone. Today we know that auditory stimuli (music) can adjust and synchronize the neurons in your brain as they oscillate to the frequencies nearby. Your body actually vibrates and entrains to what’s around you, whether it’s cacophonous or soothing. Loud traffic, construction machinery, a crying baby, or continuous complaining in an office setting can be a constant stressor; listening to music can literally change your environment. Cornell mathematician Steven Strogatz uses entrainment to explain why crickets sing together and also how the pulse of music synchronizes the brain to its beat. On the dairy farm where I grew up, it was common practice to play music at milking time (classical, if you must know!) because a relaxed cow gives more milk. Women who work or live together end up on the same monthly cycle – ladies, you know this is true. Music therapists in hospitals use entrainment with calming music to help reduce patient stress, lower heart rate, anxiety and perception of pain. And no bad side effects!
One helpful hint: bring headphones to your next medical test, surgical procedure or dental appointment. This simple strategy changes the whole experience as you entrain to the soothing, friendly music in your ears. Stress levels go down as you gain some control over your environment. Just remove one earbud or turn down the volume if you need to communicate.
What kind of music works for you? Your personal preference is the key. That said, The Journal of the American Music Therapy Association is rich with research supporting the concept that instrumental music with long phrases, repetition, no drum beat and no surprises (NOT the 1812 Overture with the cannons!) works best for most people. What’s in your playlist? What music do you have an ahhhh reaction to? You can audition a piece by listening with eyes closed and a focus on your breathing. You’ll know right away if it works for you. Listening to music is like tasting food or wine; you know the minute you experience it. Trust your reaction – you alone are the expert on what you like. And what you like, works. Need suggestions? Google Secret Garden, Daniel Kobialka, Al Jewer and Andy Mitran, or Consciously Creating Wellness. Combining guided imagery with music can also be powerful. For more on this, click here.
How? Once you’ve picked a piece, a collection or made a play list, spend some time breathing with this music each day or whenever you need it; daily practice gets the best results. You have to give yourself permission to take this time for yourself and your health. Nobody else is going to do it for you! The music sends a message to your parasympathetic nervous system: relax, digest your food, you’re safe right now. Give yourself enough time to entrain; research will say 20 minutes but it can happen faster than that. Just 5 minutes can change your day.
Go forth and listen! Own music as your own personal power tool for relaxation.
Louise Dimiceli-Mitran is a counselor and music psychotherapist in Chicago. Take a breath and visit her at www.rhythmswithin.com.