Doctor’s Orders: One Dose of Bach Twice a Day

New science suggests musical therapy could be a drug-free solution to many common ailments. Can a listen a day really keep the doctor away?

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Doctor's Orders: One Dose of Bach Twice a Day

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.”

Next: How brain music therapy has relieved migraines,
anxiety, depression and insomnia.

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When Dr Scott began researching how brainwave patterns change, and how different frequencies predominate as we go from being wide awake to sound asleep, she realized that for music to induce sleep it should match these changing brainwaves as closely as possible.

Brainwave frequencies are measured in hertz (Hz), or cycles per second, ranging from the highest – 35Hz, when we are wide awake – to under 3Hz during sleep. So “sleep” music should mirror high-frequency (gamma and beta) brainwaves, before gradually slowing down to correspond to mid- and low-frequency (alpha and theta) waves, ending with music that matches the slowest (delta) sleep waves.

Specially recorded on piano and violin, I found the initial upbeat tunes of Scott’s compilations irritating, and anticipated each change in tempo, only falling asleep after 30 minutes. Now I drift off within a few minutes, and hardly notice the tunes; it’s as if music and brain chemistry become one, eliminating thought and tension. Each slowing down of the music leads a stage deeper into sleep.

Although Dr Scott’s method of matching music to brainwaves has been around for over two decades, its scientific credibility has received a major boost thanks to a development called brain-music therapy (BMT). Pioneered recently in Russia by Dr Iakov Levine, and now popular among US psychologists, the technique relies almost wholly on advanced computer technology. Using electroencephalograph (EEG) equipment, a person’s brainwaves are recorded as they consciously relax or meditate. The recorded brainwaves are then digitally converted into musical notes using an algorithm – a special mathematical formula – that patients later listen to on a CD to encourage relaxation or stimulate energy.

This “brain music” corresponds to the subtlest variations in human brainwaves, and is, says psychiatrist Dr Galina Mindlin, director of New York’s Brain Music Therapy Centre, “more personal than a fingerprint – no two sound alike.”

Most brain music, she says, sounds rather like classical piano music, varying in tempo, pitch, rhythm and harmony from person to person, depending on how relaxed or agitated they are. According to Damian Fowler, a New York music critic who has tried BMT, his brainwaves “sounded like a cross between Philip Glass and Bach, played on a piano by a competent amateur. The key was C minor.”

Reports from the US suggests BMT produces more benefits than listening to conventional relaxing music, and has proved especially effective in relieving migraines, anxiety disorders, depression and insomnia.

Patients are given two personalized CDs for daily home use: one to relax, another to raise energy. Although mood and health can take several weeks to improve, eventually the music can become so familiar that the brain automatically switches to its own relaxed rhythm – similar to my experience with Dr Scott’s sleep tapes. Other studies confirm the influence of brain music: listening to slow, classical music has been shown to release the sleep hormone melatonin while reducing the stress chemicals cortisol and adrenalin.

Next: Could user-specific music be perscribed like medication?

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So might we one day reach for the appropriate musical “prescription” depending on whether we’re panicky, depressed or sleep deprived?

Well, yes, we might. Researchers at London Metropolitan University have perfected new algorithms and a cheaper EEG system no larger than an iPod which will make BMT relatively inexpensive.

Researcher Adrian Trevisan, who helped develop the British system, is studying its effects on 60 volunteers prior to training practitioners in how to apply it. Meanwhile, he believes online UK adverts purporting to offer BMT should be approached with caution. “Many BMT ‘practitioners’ don’t have proper training or any accreditation. Until there are protocols to follow, the area remains unregulated. You can harm someone if, say, you increase their lowest brainwaves so much that it interferes with normal waking brain function. Over-stimulating certain rhythms can make brain receptors go haywire, like taking cocaine.”

But if the future looks promising for those of us who are sleepless, stressed and anxious, what about when we need to boost energy and motivation, focus concentration and increase memory? Now, I can switch off during the first strains of Handel’s “Sonata in B Flat,” the opening track on one of Dr Scott’s CDs. But what about a tune that will just as instantly get me going?

Researchers at the University of Manchester, UK, have identified a primitive hearing mechanism responsible for inducing pleasure when we immerse ourselves in very loud music at a disco or aerobics class. Dr Neil Todd, a specialist in music perception, discovered that the sacculus – an organ that forms part of the balancing mechanism of the inner ear – responds to the frequency and beat of loud rock ‘n’ roll, apparently replicating the thrills of roller-coaster funfair rides and bungee jumps, which stimulate the balance centre.

Next: How frequencies at rock concerts and dance clubs
stimulate the brain’s pleasure centre.

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According to Dr Todd, the sacculus has no hearing function, but is linked to the pleasure centre of the brain, which drives our desire for food, sex, drugs. It also creates the buzzwe get from listening, singing or dancing to pop music – but only if played loudly, at frequencies over 90Hz. Studies demonstrate that the sacculus is most responsive to frequencies between 300-350Hz (as a guide, on a musical scale, middle C is 261Hz).

“The distribution of frequencies in rock concerts and at dance clubs almost seem designed to stimulate the sacculus,” he explains. “They’re right in this range of sensitivity.” After extended stimulation, the release of endorphins and other feel-good hormones leaves us feeling happier and more energetic, often for long periods.

I don’t find Todd’s findings surprising: they explain my enjoyment of hip-hop and disco beats in keep-fit and dance classes, and why, after exercising to fast, upbeat music, my head is clearer, reactions sharper, and mood and energy elevated. It doesn’t have to be aerobic exercise: a brisk “power walk” with the iPod works equally well (the tracks that always do it for me include “I’m Still Standing,” “Material Girl,” “I Will Survive,” “YMCA,” “Mamma Mia,” “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “La Bamba”).

Other research is now starting to reveal some of the more puzzling ways in which music influences us. Why, for instance, are relaxing or uplifting effects sometimes only fully experienced after listening? Does a change of tempo in a soundtrack, or even silence itself, have a delayed impact on the nervous system? Dr Luciano Bernardi of the University of Pavia, Italy, measured fluctuating heart, breathing rates and blood pressure of 24 men as they listened to selections of slow and fast classical music, techno, rap, and more. To Bernardi’s surprise, bodily functions only dropped significantly when the music slowed down or ended – or when he inserted an unexpected two-minute pause in each track. This delayed response occurred whatever music the subjects listened to, and was most noticeable during gaps in slower music.

According to Bernardi, listening to music involves some focus of attention, and it’s only when that focus ends that the body fully relaxes (in the same way that physical relaxation is deeper after concentration on, or tensing of, your muscles). Bernardi claims we could tackle physical and mental stress by creating our own music, alternating between fast and slow rhythms, and “doctoring” the tracks to include pauses and longer gaps.

Bernardi’s research highlights an intriguing fact: it may not be what we listen to, but how we listen to it – the volume, speed, pauses, even the rhythm – that turns music into therapy. Now excuse me while I pop on my headphones and turn up the volume.

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