Dossier: Healthy brain

The power of music

Singing a song, playing an instrument and listening to music all trigger reactions in our brain. And music therapy takes advantage of this to help people with physical and mental illnesses.

Text: Nicole Krättli; photo: iStock

We all know the feeling of being transported back in time or place when we hear a particular song or maybe even only a few chords. Suddenly you’re back in the restaurant when you met your partner for the first time or you’re lying on a beach in Portugal where you heard the same song played time and again 15 years ago. Or perhaps you’re a teenager again, singing along to Backstreet Boy songs without a care in the world.

When sounds reach our ears as vibrations in the air, the auditory nerves transmit these sounds as electrical impulses to our brain, where the cerebral cortex links them with a network of memory traces and something quite extraordinary happens: the music transports us away from our daily life and we remember how we felt back then.

Musicians’ brains work differently

“How we respond to music has a lot to do with our listening experience”, says Beate Roelcke, co-director of the Clinical Music Therapy programme at Zurich University of the Arts. Although it is up to individual experience whether music by the Backstreet Boys, Vera Lynn or Abba triggers emotions in us, there are some universal truths. “Slow rhythms and listening to harmonics have a calming effect”, says Roelcke. Music helps lower blood pressure and reduce the level of the stress hormone cortisol.

The effect on the body is even stronger when we make music ourselves. Neuroscientists at the University of Zurich, for example, were able to prove in a study that professional musicians have a better working memory than non-musicians. In musicians, the auditory areas of both cerebral hemispheres were more strongly connected than in non-musicians. But the effect goes even further. Music activates a wide variety of brain regions simultaneously. Even in non-musicians, brain structures can be reorganised and changed when they make music or listen to music.

Music therapy makes use of this – for example with stroke patients who are paralysed on one side and thus have limited motor skills. Rhythm affects our movements and makes them easier to execute. In addition, various instruments such as a xylophone or piano can also be played with one hand and patients can express themselves in this way. “In music therapy, it’s possible to focus on what can be used as a resource without pressure to perform”, explains Roelcke. 

Rhythm influences our movements and moves us both emotionally and physically.

“Amazing Grace” gets results

A study with stroke patients has shown the positive effect of practising movements to music. The group who attended music therapy made greater progress with their motor skills than those who did the same exercises without music. Music also works on an emotional level: “Choosing a rhythm, making up a melody, enjoying listening to the sounds all help boost self-esteem”, says Roelcke.

The power of music is particularly evident in stroke patients whose speech centres have been damaged. These people often know what they want to say but can no longer find the words. As a result, many can only talk in single syllables or give up speaking altogether.

Roelcke suggests that stroke patients sing songs together. It’s important to find a song that they learned when they were younger – maybe even in their childhood or adolescence – and that they know by heart. “‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘You are my sunshine’ often work with older patients”.

The words just seem to come. This is because the lyrics of the song, in connection with the melody, are stored in a different place in the brain than speech. Exercises like these not only help make new connections in the brain, says Beate Roelcke: “They also give people an incredible sense of accomplishment. Patients suddenly realise that they can do something after all.”