Let the music in
Music helps reduce stress and can enhance your sense of well-being
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I love music. Singing relaxes, and dancing rejuvenates me. I would rather sing or dance to de-stress than do anything else. Listening to music is the next best thing. And my experience with music is far from singular. Music has been long known to inspire emotions and actions. For some people, music is particularly beneficial. And there is medical research evidence to show this.
Prof. Michael Thorne, vice-chancellor of Anglia Ruskin University in the UK, who was recently in India to set up a master of arts (MA) programme in music therapy, writes in an email interview that for some people “activities such as singing in choirs and playing in orchestras have health benefits similar to the way that sports and other leisure activities do”.
Music is known to reduce stress and enhance your sense of well-being, but just how effective is it in doing that?
Prof. Thorne says, “Music psychology literature and research shows that tailor-made music-listening programmes can help to reduce stress but the type of music must relate to the individual’s needs and tastes.” In other words, for music to do its thing, it should be the kind of music that affects you positively and should be the kind that either relaxes or energizes you.
Bangalore-based Namrata Baruah, 30, an advertising professional and a singer/songwriter, enjoys classical music because it relaxes her. She says long work hours and pressure often take a toll on her health, but singing and listening to classical music relaxes her and improves her overall health.
A review by UK-based non-profit organization Cochrane, published in June last year, concluded that self-selected music helps reduce the anxiety associated with going into the operating theatre. The review was conducted by J. Brad and colleagues on 26 studies that looked at over 2,000 patients. One particular study among the 26 also found that listening to music reduced the need for anti-anxiety medication.
It makes sense, and I take some music with me if I, or my family, are ever in a hospital. But there aren’t too many hospitals that advise patients to bring their favourite music along with their toothbrush and change of clothes. It would be wonderful if that kind of advice were a part of patient management policy, as long as the music came with earphones so that the other patients weren’t disturbed.
Listening to your favourite music is a great stress reliever but what is even more effective is a series of sessions with a trained music therapist. On email, Sumathy Sundar, director of the Chennai School of Music Therapy in Pallikaranai, defines music therapy as a “mind-body medicine that works on bringing a balance between the mind, body and soul, and treats the person as a whole and not just the symptom”. Even in therapy, the music chosen is based on the patient’s musical interests and profile.
Sundar adds that music therapy works in people with physical handicaps, in people with psychiatric disorders, in children with development disorders, and in people with depression. She describes one of her patients: a 35-year-old woman who was diagnosed with clinical depression and suffered from sleep disturbances. After eight music therapy sessions, the quality of her sleep improved dramatically. Typically, music therapy needs to continue for three, six or 12 months, depending on the goals set by the music therapist.
If a music therapist isn’t readily available, a music teacher who is willing to work with a doctor can be of help too. The Bangalore-based Hindustani classical vocalist and teacher, Kavita Aarudra, describes a student in her 60s who suffered from major depression; her psychiatrist recommended music lessons. Aarudra gave her lessons in music for 2 hours each day for a year. The music that the patient sang was just the notes within a single octave in ascending or descending order. The patient found this calming and relaxing. Singing each musical note while holding it for an extended period of time is like yogic breathing. It’s a beautiful relaxation technique. After the musical training, Aarudra’s student needed half the dose of medication that she had originally been put on and her family found her less irritable and able to engage with the family comfortably.
Prof. Thorne agrees, “Engagement with a music therapist, using live musical improvisation methods, can relieve psychological stress.”
I enjoy listening to all kinds of music, from Hindustani classical and Western classical to Latin jazz, dance or Bollywood, because all these genres have a place in my life. But there are days when I know instinctively that it’s best to play music that relaxes me and makes me calm.
I’ve made myself a “happy” mix of songs for just that purpose.
Sujata Kelkar Shetty, PhD, writes on public health issues and is a research scientist trained at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, US.