Could I be turning into a junkie? At bedtime every night, I look forward to my nightly “fix.” Lights off, eyes shut, stereo headphones in place, the strains of Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky, Bach and other composers lull me to sleep. Most nights I’m out long before the 30-minute sleep CD has finished. Unlike sleeping pills or alcohol, there are no ill effects, and no wearing off of the therapeutic powers of this particular drug. On the contrary, the more you use music, the better it works.
As the science behind “music medicine” begins to emerge, what was once dismissed as one of the weirder elements of fringe therapy is now entering the mainstream. In some US hospitals, classical music is played in the operating theatre to help patients relax and soothe preoperative nerves. American research also suggests that playing music to patients after major surgery helps to lower blood pressure and heart rate, and accelerate healing. Advanced brain mapping technology, including functioning MRI scans to pinpoint which areas of the brain respond to different stimuli, enables therapists to identify which types of music have calming, energizing or even negative effects on mind and body.
This has led to the most exciting discovery of all: that different musical rhythms and tempi seem to mirror our individual brainwave frequencies — electrical wave patterns generated by the brain. Since these patterns reflect how tense or relaxed we are, researchers speculate that various forms of “custom-made” music therapy, fine-tuned to suit each of our mental and physical needs, could soon be prescribed alongside — or instead of — conventional medicines.
Using music as therapy is likely to involve more than simply listening to your favourite sounds, be it Abba or Mozart. Despite claims by many New Age CD manufacturers, soporific melodies are not necessarily the best for banishing anxiety and insomnia, especially for people who go to bed wide awake and tense.
The sleep tape I’m now hooked on, Sleep Sounds for Grown-Ups, was developed largely by chance by Scottish GP Dr Elizabeth Scott, while trying to calm her crying, sleepless grandchild. Eventually she discovered a selection of tunes that sent the baby to sleep almost instantly (resulting in the best-selling CD Sound Asleep for Babies). What surprised her was which tempi worked best. “He didn’t fall asleep when I played him slow music: instead he dropped off after I put on uptempo works, such as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.”