Background Music as Stress Relief: How Does Music Affect Our Mental and Physical Health?

 Music is a huge part of our daily lives. Studies have even found that while cultures without writing exist, there are no cultures in this world that do not include some form of music. Music lifts our spirits and helps us relax – in fact, music has various effects on both our mental and physical health. A range of experiments show that music induces certain emotions and adjusts arousal levels. “Arousal level adjustment” indicates an effect where the arousal levels of the brain or nerve system are adjusted so that they are neither too low or too high. In short, if we are in a state of excessive excitement, music helps us calm down, and when we are in a state of excessive depression, music can help us feel better.

The Effect of Rhythm on Our Mental and Physical States

 How does rhythm, one of the most important constituents in any form of music, affect the human mental and physical state? A Japanese university study team attempted to answer this question through a series of experiments. The team asked adult males of good health to listen to two-beat, three-beat, and four-beat sounds, measuring the fluctuations of their heart rates in the meantime. As a result, during all of these beats, there was an increase in the participants’ parasympathetic nervous system activity (which occurs when the body is at rest, helping to decrease blood pressure and heart rate). This indicates that feeling rhythm encourages the human body to relax. Out of the various beats, the three-beat rhythm had the largest effect on the participants.

Why are Three-Beat Music Patterns So Relaxing?

 The reason we find three-beat rhythms so relaxing can be explained by its relationship with the human heartbeat. Although heartbeats are often depicted as a two-beat rhythm, it is in fact a three-beat pattern.
【The human heartbeat】

 A heartbeat expressed in words would be something like “Ba-dum-p”. The rhythm of continuous heartbeats would be, therefore, “Ba-dum-p, ba-dum-p, ba-dum-p”. (Heartbeats are more generally expressed in two syllables, such as “Ba-dum”, or “Thump -, thump –“. This is a misconception.)

 The human heartbeat has a three-beat rhythm. It is thought that we find the rhythm soothing because we listen to this beat from the primary stages of our lives, inside our mothers’ stomachs. Representative examples are music from medieval Europe or contemporary Africa and South America, as they often include a three-beat rhythm. Kenichi Tsukada, a Japanese musicologist, touches on this subject in his monograph The African Sound.

 “Africans often say that the sound of the drums is the sound of the heart. Incidentally, African music often incorporates a three-beat drum sound. Does this mean Africans are always aware of their own heartbeats? If this is true, it must be during their hunts that allow them to do so. Staying still in the middle of the forest, lying in wait for their prey, holding their breaths, with only their internal organs to listen to…This is when they hear their own heartbeats.”

 Masayasu Tsuboguchi, a Japanese jazz musician and associate professor, also examines the African beat in his monograph An Analysis of African Music: Polyrhythm and Temperament as the Basis of Jazz.

 “One of the characteristics of African polyrhythm is that at first glance it appears to consist of eighth and sixteenth notes, although in actuality it is often made of triplets with an accent on the up beat.”

 “It constitutes a number of typical polyrhythmical factors, such as quarter-note triplets, eighth-note triplets, and eight notes.”

 Tsuboguchi’s studies show that African music often includes triplets or three-beat rhythms.  

 Famous examples of three-beat music that have a relaxing effect are Bach’s Minuet and Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube.
【Minuet by Bach】

【The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss II】

The Vigor of the Three-Beat

 Relaxation is not the only effect three-beat patterns have on the human body. When the three-beat is placed with a lively tempo, it becomes a vigorous, energetic rhythm that encourages us to dance and move about.
Because the human body is symmetrical, a four-beat pattern comes naturally to us when we move: 1, 2, 3, 4, left, right, left, right. On the other hand, a three-beat pattern brings a little twist and encourages us to move in various ways: left-right-left, right-left-right. From these reasons, a lively three-beat pattern is suitable for dance music, bringing vigor and energy.

A representative example of a lively, three-beat tune is the waltz by Johann Strauss II, Voices of Spring.

【Voices of Spring by Johann Strauss II】

Music Therapy as a Growing Field

 There was a time when art and science were regarded as two incompatible factors. However, in recent years, a form of therapy which unites music and science has been steadily gaining recognition. Music therapy uses the physiological and psychological effects of music to help patients recover from mental and physical illnesses, maintain/regain their bodily functions, and support behavioral control. Music therapy can be used in a variety of situations, such as stress care, mental stabilization, self-heal promotion, pain relief, and homeostasis recovery.
The United States is one of the leading countries in music therapy, utilizing it in various medical areas including psychiatry, neurology, surgery, pediatrics, and geriatrics. Qualified music therapists are especially active in pediatrics, working with diagnoses of developmental disorders, behavioral disorders, emotional disorders, and autism. Historically, music therapy had been used at war, to lift the spirits of troops and to relieve stress of injured soldiers. Currently, it is within medical insurance coverage, and is widely used in the medical field.

How Music Affects Physical Illnesses

 Music can have an effect on the physical body as well, as many studies have shown. For example, a study conducting music therapy on elderly people for 25 minutes every day for four weeks resulted in a significant decrease in their systolic blood pressure. Patients with Alzheimer’s disease have also displayed less over-excited behaviour by listening to lively background music.

As for dementia, studies have indicated that music therapy have certain effects on relieving patients from anxiety. For patients with MCI (Mild Cognitive Impairment), learning to play an instrument helped them recover cognitive functions, decreasing their danger of developing dementia.

Studies were also conducted to patients who developed high blood pressure through cerebral infarction. These patients had been given hypotensive drugs for a period of over one year, but had stopped because no effect had been seen. Therapy in the form of music boxes resulted in lower blood pressure, as well as recovery from sensory disorders and relief from pain. In the case of healthy people during a wakeful state, alpha brain wave components are generally the most active in the brain, especially in the posterior areas. When the person is in a relaxed state, the alpha waves become larger and slower. The music box therapy allowed patients to relax, resulting in larger, slow-wave amplitudes, as well as enhancing blood flows in the occipital lobe. These studies led to recognition of the certain effects that music box therapy can have on after-effects of cerebral infarction.

Studies have also revealed statistics on the effect on natural killer cells, in regard to treatment of senile dementia of the Alzheimer type, sequelae of cerebrovascular disease, and Parkinson’s disease. Natural killer cells are reported to be effective in various areas of these illnesses, including damaging activity to tumor cells, adjustment of blood formation, and control over virus infections. Studies have shown that natural killer cells became more active one hour after conducting music therapy.

How Learning Musical Instruments can have an Impact on Intellectual Development

 How can learning to play a musical instrument affect intellectual development?
According to studies, the brains of musicians, such as pianists and violinists, are heavily developed on their rear side of their left superior temporal gyrus. In addition, their subparietal lobule are larger than average, especially in their left brain. The left superior temporal gyrus includes the auditory area, the auditory association area, and Wernicke’s area. The fact that these areas are larger than normal indicates that they have better auditory senses as musicians. Such characteristics have been concluded to be the acquired results of training. When people receive professional musical training, they acquire high-level skills and cognitive abilities, resulting in formal and functional changes in their brains. Musician’s brains tend to have larger volumes of gray matter in motor, auditory, visual, and cerebellar regions.
The anatomical characteristics of musicians’ brains can also be found in mathematicians and physicists. People with skilled mathematical abilities are often also talented musicians or performers. Musical abilities are closely associated with language abilities as well; many musicians are proficient in multiple languages.

 One study had 64 child participants of ages four to six, and examined how musical training could affect other cognitive abilities. 32 participants showed growth in their linguistic abilities over the 20-day training period. Other studies have also discussed the positive effects on linguistic ability, and have noted that children who learn musical instruments tend to have better linguistic memories. (The impact on visual memory has yet to be shown). 
 Does this mean that learning to play musical instruments can have an effect on our intellectual development? A study has attempted to answer this question by examining people with musical training and how much better they are at intellectual and attentive tasks. According to their results, while people with musical training tend to do better at intellectual tests, there was no definitive causal relationship. One possible explanation is that intellectually developed children are more likely to have opportunities to receive musical training, and not that musical training enhances intellectual development.

So…What Kind of Music is Best for Us?

 Music has positive effects on the brain, and our mental and physical health. Aside from the effects we have already discussed, recognition of music and its harmony, rhythm, and melody can also enhance activity in our prefrontal cortex. More activity in the prefrontal cortex means better creativity and attentiveness, as well as creating a relaxed state of the mind. 

 So, in the end, what kind of music is best for us?
Studies show that the effects music have on us depend significantly on many factors, such as the type of instrument, the genre, whether we like the melody, whether we know the melody well, and whether the melody bores us or excites us. In conclusion, the kind of music that would have the best effect on us is most likely the music that we love most.


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