Monday, December 22, 2008

Music listening to facilitate relaxation and promote wellness: Integrated aspects of our neurophysiological responses to music

Sharon Dutton

Krout, Robert E. (2006) “Music listening to facilitate relaxation and promote wellness: Integrated aspects of our neurophysiological responses to music” The Arts in Psychotherapy 34: 134-141, November 2006

Dr. Krout examines the neurological bases for therapeutic roles that listening to music appears to facilitate. He cites many authors who have explored the use of music therapy to “positively affect physiological functioning” (p 135), in particular stress management and relaxation. These effects can be derived from passive listening, or from active engagement or participation in music performance. Krout presents an overview of research studies which explore and describe possible roles of the limbic system, the autonomic nervous system and release of hormones, and the interrelated roles of neurotransmitters, hormones, and the endocrine system, as he examines evidence of neural responses to music intended for relaxation.

Dr. Krout’s connections are sometimes vague, but based on the research cited in the article, he posits that the limbic system is affected by both external stimuli (music) and by cognitive activity (imagery), and can respond to positive stimuli by eliciting pleasurable sensations in the brain. Music affects the thalamus, which affects the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which in turn affects physiological movements within the body, resulting in a form of entrainment. Relaxation may be facilitated by the release of certain types of hormones in the brain while listening to music, namely endogenous opioids and morphines. Music may stimulate the production of natural endorphins, and the release of neurotransmitters which govern our moods. By calming neural activity music may promote and enable healthy functioning of the immune system.

Based on the many references he cites in this article, Dr. Krout proposes that 1) “the more the listener is exposed to specific music, the greater their relaxation response” (p 138), 2) musical preference plays an important role in the degree of relaxation that can be facilitated by listening to music, and 3) matching music’s tempo and complexity to the degree of stress, and then introducing calmer music is effective.


Many studies have documented music’s calming affect, and this research is helpful for teachers or other therapists who can use calming strategies in their professions. Various biological responses can be observed and measured, and identified chemicals are released in response to listening and / or partaking in musical performance activities, but the means whereby these responses are activated appears to elude neuroscientists.

Some people claim that music can relax them, and others claim that music makes them feel better. Some people claim that music has healing powers, while others claim that they can evoke the physical power of music after a period of chanting, and can perform super-human feats. We, in the west, have learned to ignore, to discount, and finally, to distrust our intuitive knowledge, our embodied wisdom, and our spiritual gifts. No doubt because North America – (not its proper name) – is so predominantly re-populated and governed by newcomers, we, the newcomers have carelessly disassociated from our ancestors. I am third generation Canadian, and I don’t know my great-grandparents’ first names. The fact that I have no clue how they lived, where they are buried, and was never encouraged to give them a second’s thought is typical. Yet, I am connected to their lives – I am beholden to their lives, in the most obvious of ways. North Americans – “modern science” – has forgotten the wisdom of its ancestors, denies its very existence, and believes instead in its own de-constructed knowledge as wisdom. The ancient civilizations who depended on the power of music knew that “it facilitates relaxation and promotes wellness”, knew that through music, they could develop their capacity to communicate with eachother, knew that through music, they could experience deeper spiritual meanings, and knew that they loved and needed music’s awesome power to sustain their personal health and the health of their communities. Hopefully, these facts will not always elude scientific understanding.

One of the fascinations of studying Music and the Brain is that it presents as yet, unchartered territory for exploration. Given that we are still only exploring and attempting to understand neural responses to music, our knowledge of this field is puerile, specifically where music is concerned. But then, music will always preserve its mystery, because it lives where our spirits live, in our hearts.


Janet said...

Very interesting post, Sharon! As music facilitates relaxation and promotes wellness, I am wondering how and why various styles of music
affect each person in a different manner. I am thinking specifically of the adolescent who seems to obtain a great amount of satisfaction and entrainment from hard rock and/or rap, heavy metal, etc., even those adolescents who have been exposed to more soothing music and who have been classically trained. Different people have such varying types of 'musical grooves' that provide relaxation and promote 'wellness'. Very thought provoking and challenging for music educators who try so hard to capture students' interests in music.

Sharon Dutton said...

Hey Janet! - what a pleasant surprise! Dr. Krout refers to an "iso-principle" (Davis, 2003)in music therapy: Match music to existing levels of activity and then gradually move in a desired direction such as more relaxed music (slower, quieter, legato, gentle timbre, simple harmonic structure). Initially, he says, "it is often helpful to match a recording to existing levels of activity and stress in terms of the tempo of the piece and its musical complexity"... Based on that, if some adolescents prefer music that sounds excited, restless, (or sometimes angry), then they probably are (excited, restless, and sometimes angry). And there are others who prefer calmer music, who probably are calmer and quieter in spirit. And those preteens seem to like that high energy stuff... (all jumping around, just like them)...