As a musician, I’m attuned to the transformative power of music. My father was a musician, and I grew up listening to classical and jazz compositions. I was intrigued by the complex rhythms and melodies of jazz, and was inspired to begin playing the bass guitar in my early teens. In my early twenties, I added another dimension of music to my life when I entered a Franciscan monastery and experienced the meditative chants of the monks. I always felt that I both lost and found myself in music, whether it was classical, jazz, or Gregorian chants.
As a researcher, I’m interested in understanding exactly how music affects the body. From the beginning of recorded history, sound and music have played a significant role in healing. Whether through the hypnotic drum rhythms of an African tribe or the sonorous chants of Tibetan monks, music pierces the soul and accesses the power of healing in a way unlike any other.
In the West, there’s a growing interest in music therapy. Studies show that music helps to relieve stress, anxiety, and depression; eases pain and muscle tension; lowers blood pressure; and improves immune function. People with cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia, anxiety, and depression have all been shown to benefit from music therapy. For example, researchers at the November 2008 American Heart Association Scientific Sessions meeting in New Orleans presented a study showing that emotions aroused by joyful music have a beneficial effect on blood vessel function. Laughter and relaxation are also helpful, but music seems to be the strongest of “medicines” for the heart.
So how does music actually facilitate healing? According to experts, music affects us on a primal, unconscious level. Our bodies intuitively adjust to the rhythm of music in a phenomenon known as entrainment. When you find your foot tapping or your body swaying to the beat of music, that’s entrainment. Music with a strong beat stimulates brain waves to synchronize with the beat. Faster rhythms increase alertness and focus, while slower beats encourage a relaxed, meditative state.
These alterations in brain waves influence the body via the autonomic nervous system, which governs involuntary functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and glucose levels. The sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is designed to defend the body against danger, and elicits the “fight-or-flight” response. When the crisis has passed, the parasympathetic branch takes over, and the body downshifts into the mode of healing and regeneration.
Because of the stressors inherent in modern life, many of us live in a state of continual sympathetic arousal. It’s not a healthy place to inhabit. Staying in crisis mode means that stress hormones are wearing down your body. All of your energy goes toward defense, and there’s no opportunity for your body to rebuild, heal, and regenerate. Cultivating a parasympathetic state is a powerful way to encourage physical and emotional healing.
Music is one of the easiest and most immediate ways to produce a parasympathetic state of healing. Studies show that music with a slow tempo (such as Bach or Mozart) will calm the nervous system and encourage parasympathetic activity. Heart rate and breathing tend to synchronize to the beat of the music; a tempo of about 70 beats per minute is perfect because it mimics the average healthy heart rate at rest.
As a jazz bass guitarist, I resonate with jazz, and that’s where I find my true self, in a state of deep expression and exploration, on an inner quest to find God and myself at the same time and place. I can be both energetic and introspective, distilling the emotion and spiritual essence of music as it emanates from the depths of my being. For me, being a jazz musician is inseparable from being an herbalist and healer. Listening to and playing music enables me to create in a synthesis of heart, mind, and soul.
There is no one type of music that can be classified as healing music. Pay attention to your unique response as you engage with music—if you feel whole, happy, and at ease, then you’ve found the music that heals you.