It’s no secret that music is used in innumerable ways to create connections, soothe troubles, and bring back memories. Parents who say they’d never sing in public will serenade their babies with lullabies, and as time moves on those children will mark milestone after milestone with song. Perhaps there are strong but often unrecognized reasons we sing Happy Birthday, celebrate holidays with music, and add songs to festivities marking life’s best moments.
Some of the main reasons are no doubt related to our biology. There are hundreds of studies that point to the biological benefits of music. Composer Eric Whitacre noted some of the research in an interview with J.W. Pepper when he was asked about his work in choral music.
“There’s study after study that shows the health and well-being benefits of singing. We know now that just singing together in a group reduces the stress hormone cortisol. It releases endorphins. It causes a sense of joy and euphoria,” Whitacre said. “There are even studies that show singers who sing together tend to sync heartbeats.”
This research includes a 2011 study performed by scientists from Germany’s University of Leipzig and the Max Planck Institute of Human Cognition and Brain Science. It found that patients who listened to music during surgery had lower cortisol levels and needed less anesthesia. Other similar studies have looked at how music positively affects stress levels in medical settings ranging from surgical waiting rooms and MRI machines to neonatal intensive care units.
Studies have also shown that music can prompt the release of the “feel good” neurotransmitter dopamine, which is commonly triggered by life-sustaining activities like eating. Researchers from McGill University found in their study that the dopamine released while listening to music can trigger strongly positive emotions, including euphoria.
Beyond the science, there is an almost innate sense that music does so much for both individuals and a community. David Kim, concertmaster for the Philadelphia Orchestra, says because of this, the arts are vitally important for children in school.
“It does something for the soul. It can’t just be about eating, drinking, sleeping, playing, riding your bike – it has to be more,” Kim said. “Otherwise you end up in environment where you have a kind of cultural ghetto, meaning if they don’t have the arts and culture in their lives, I feel like they have a dry spot in their heart.”
When Music Is Life Changing
These profound effects may be why music has been used as a tool by many people facing some of life’s greatest challenges. A few years ago jazz guitarist Pat Martino shared his story of how music helped him find a way back to hope.
He says his guitar became his “saving grace” after he suffered a nearly fatal brain aneurysm. The emergency surgery that he underwent took away all of his memories of his family, his past and his music. Eventually in his struggle to recover and overcome a deep depression, Martino says he went back to his guitar, which enabled him find a new reality and life.
Details about his health challenges start at 19:06 in the video below.
Martino is certainly not alone in this experience. Music has been used throughout history to bring some sense of inner peace during turbulent times.
At a Leonard Bernstein exhibit presented by the National Museum of American Jewish History, Associate Curator Ivy Weingram talked about one of these times. After World War II, Bernstein was asked to visit a displaced persons camp where he conducted an orchestra of 17 Holocaust survivors – individuals trying to use music to heal. Bernstein conducted them in Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin, which Bernstein considered a composition that offered him assistance in times of personal turmoil.
Some of this healing may come from music memories that remind us of better times. In our blog How Music Helps Adults with Alzheimer’s Disease, it’s noted how the brain has an amazing capacity to retain memories of music even as cognitive ability deteriorates. Music therapist Ariel Weissberger says he uses this capacity to help older adults find a connection to themselves and to others.
Joanna Mangiovillano, a music therapist and teacher, has found this same effect in children with disabilities. In Pepper’s documentary To All Lovers of Song and Music she described how music allowed a nonverbal student she taught to express himself.
“He would sing complete songs, and you would never know he was a nonverbal person. When you’d go to talk to the child, it was completely different. So if you saw that out of context, you’d have no idea,” Mangiovillano said.
Such powerful connections may be why some professional musicians have spent even their last moments immersing themselves in song. As noted in our blog 19 Groundbreaking Women Composers, Part 1, Lili Boulanger was one of these musicians. While on her deathbed at the age of 24, Lili dictated to her sister Nadia her final piece, Pie Jesu. In this song the performer asks the Lord to grant everlasting rest.
Col. John Bourgeois, former director of the United States Marine Band, shared a similar story about another former director of the band, William Santelmann.
Santelmann spent most of his life tied to “The President’s Own” since his father was also a director of the band. As noted in the video below, he passed away almost immediately after conducting the band performing Semper Fidelis – the march based on the Marine Corps’ “always faithful” motto. Bourgeois said this music brought Santelmann’s life full circle.
“When he was born, the first sounds he ever heard, I’m sure, was music of the Marine Band and perhaps Semper Fidelis,” Bourgeois said. “The last sounds he hears in his life are the Marine Band playing Semper Fidelis.”
Whatever the reasons for music’s power, both history and current times have shown us how songs can move us emotionally and even physically – how they get us through the worst times and allow us to celebrate the best. Perhaps composer John Rutter summed it up best when he described the importance of music in all our lives.
“It’s like a great oak that rises up from the center of the human race and spreads its branches everywhere,” Rutter said. “That’s what music does for us.”