How Music Changes our Brain

I’ve been in a very intense travel/work schedule, so have not posted here in a while. But I think I’m back now.

Just read an absolutely fascinating piece in Salon: “How Music Changes our Brain.”  Sample quotes:

“…noise is the second greatest pollutant in the world today. Environmental noise affects cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment in kids, sleep disturbance, tinnitus, not to mention just plain annoyance. If it’s too loud, whether it’s classical music, rock, whatever, it’s not good for us. And the numbers are just beyond me. The study said noise cost up 45,000 DALY [disability-adjusted-life years, meaning 45,000 years of “healthy” life worldwide are taken away by noise] per year.

“I just returned from a week in New York City, and I have a little decibel app on my iPhone. On the subways it registered way over 100 decibels. When I was outside, I found myself covering my ears and needing to use my noise reduction headphones.

“…a background rhythm will help and assist somebody with dyslexia or autism to speak and read in rhythm. Exposure to different kinds of patterns — high range, mid-range, low range, slow tempo, medium, high tempo — can help bring order to their thinking. In a 2001 study, one researcher found that brain activity changes when there is soothing music, and there is biological evidence that we can actually remove a great deal of the tension in frustrated children by exposing them to more soothing sounds.

“Our hearing decreases radically after the age of 60, and often by the time we are in our 80s we don’t hear high frequencies and some sounds become more annoying and more confusing. Under different kinds of medication, tinnitus becomes more frequent. It’s a symptom, not a disease. By learning to tap a rhythm as one speaks with an elder, to use a drum, a simple hand drum, the size of a tambourine, to be able to translate and transfer the organization of speech and thought becomes much more effective. There’s a company called Oval Window that produces floors that vibrate, so elders they can literally hear better through the vibrations.

“Silence is part of the brain’s pattern. It helps it reintegrate, like sleep, but we can’t shut our ears like we shut our eyes…I love exploring iTunes, but you only get 20 seconds of something to see if you like it. It’s like an all-you-can-eat food bar, but you need to understand the nutrition of it. If you’re changing music every 30 seconds, then be sure to have 2 minutes of real silence in there. It goes back to chew your food so to speak before you swallow it.”

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To Hear

Moving from blindness to sight or deafness to hearing (or even poverty to wealth) is one of the great human stories.  That’s why John Newton’s simple lyric, “Twas blind, but now I see,” has been so everlastingly evocative to so many, and in so many times and places. Six one-syllable words describe life change. You live in one dimension and then you crash through a barrier into a brand-new one.  Your former self vanishes. A new life emerges. It’s probably somewhat like being killed in a car wreck and then your spirit — the real you — rises from the wreckage to continue living in the boundless expanse of immortality.

This 1:30 minute YouTube video of a young woman hearing for the first time certainly tells its own story. In that sense, it is dramatic and irresistible.  But it is also a very moving metaphor of total life change.

Few things are as spirit-dulling as politics and religion. That’s probably because they are two sides of the same coin. They both represent the best human ideas on how to create and control a safe place in the cosmos. Both are antithetical to trust. Both are located somewhere along a sliding scale — from mild to severe — of doubt.

I personally believe that no points, no elevations on the political spectrum or the religious one represent “high ground.” Every inch of the sliding scale falls on the same horizontal plane. Nothing on that plane will ever become airborne.

I’ve seen what happens when people (even religious ones) finally “hear” for the first time. They throw off the shroud of death, scream, laugh, dance, hug everyone within a 3-mile radius, and/or collapse in sobs of gratitude for something they never heard before. What they hear subverts every human idea, order, and structure.

Everything changes.


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