Mu­sic and mind­ful­ness

Mu­sic and mind­ful­ness beat to the same drum when it comes to self-ex­pres­sion, aware­ness and re­al­i­sa­tion says Cheri Percy.

Project Calm - - Contents -

“Mu­sic has never been lu­cra­tive to me. It’s ther­apy. It makes me feel awe­some, happy, cen­tered and bal­anced. It’s what keeps me go­ing and breath­ing.” At the base of Grammy Award-win­ning singer, Erykah Badu’s decade- span­ning ca­reer is a need for self- care, and it’s not un­com­mon for cre­ative peo­ple to find them­selves through this kind of self- ex­pres­sion. The arts can be a tool for many to com­mu­ni­cate what would oth­er­wise be un­spo­ken. Mu­sic has an in­nate power over the brain and al­most heal­ing prop­er­ties.

The in­ner work­ings of the brain are in­trin­sic to our re­la­tion­ship with mu­sic. In fact, re­searchers be­lieve that while mu­si­cal in­stru­ments ap­pear to be a re­cent in­no­va­tion, mu­sic it­self is sig­nif­i­cantly older. Some stud­ies sug­gest it may have al­lowed our an­ces­tors to com­mu­ni­cate be­fore the in­ven­tion of lan­guage and even helped to pro­vide the so­cial me­chan­ics that formed the first pre-hu­man so­ci­eties.

Feel­ings of iden­tity linked to mu­sic aren’t a new con­cept. Pock­ets of peo­ple have come to­gether across the decades to form their own scenes and com­mu­ni­ties. English psy­chi­a­trist, psy­cho­an­a­lyst and au­thor, An­thony Storr, stresses in 1992’s Mu­sic and the Mind that in all so­ci­eties “a pri­mary func­tion of mu­sic is col­lec­tive and com­mu­nal, to bring and bind peo­ple to­gether”. Sim­pler times would find peo­ple gath­er­ing around a camp­fire to dance the night away and a kind of gay aban­don that’s taken a hit in the age of dig­i­tal con­sump­tion. In­stead, we seek out live gigs at con­cert halls or mu­sic fes­ti­vals to spark that feel­ing of in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion, com­bined ex­pe­ri­ences and an ab­stract bond over a beau­ti­ful mo­ment be­tween two strangers jostling up against one an­other in a crowd.

This bind­ing hap­pens fun­da­men­tally through rhythm which turns lis­ten­ers into par­tic­i­pants or ide­ally, sparks some­one to pick up an in­stru­ment them­selves and pass on this feel­ing to oth­ers. A sort of mu­si­cal tag if you will. Rhythm be­comes the back­bone of so many ex­pe­ri­ences and pro­vides a beat and a struc­ture to fol­low; a marching band, a pa­rade, a church ser­mon. In­deed, our brain seeks out rhythms some­times for ob­jects that don’t ap­pear to have them. John Iversen, a neu­ro­sci­en­tist and avid drum­mer who ap­pears within Oliver Sacks’ Mu­si­cophilia, points out: “We tend to hear the sound of

“A pri­mary func­tion of mu­sic is col­lec­tive and com­mu­nal, to bring and bind peo­ple to­gether.”

a dig­i­tal clock as ‘tick, tock, tick, tock’ even though it’s ac­tu­ally ‘tick, tick, tick’. Same goes for an MRI scan, some­times it or­gan­ises it­self in walt­z­like groups of threes, some­times in groups of four or fives. Our brain im­poses a pat­tern of its own even if there’s no ob­jec­tive pat­tern present.”

It’s baf­fling to com­pre­hend but mu­si­cal ac­tiv­ity in­volves nearly ev­ery re­gion of the brain that we know about and nearly ev­ery neu­ral sub­sys­tem. Award-win­ning sci­en­tist, mu­si­cian, au­thor and record pro­ducer, David Levitin’s de­fin­i­tive work, This Is Your Brain on Mu­sic puts this into per­spec­tive. When a sound hits the brain, fea­ture de­tec­tors (a group of neu­rons early on in the brain’s sen­sory path­way) will an­a­lyse the dif­fer­ent el­e­ments as­so­ci­ated with th­ese mu­sic sig­nals such as pitch, tempo, and tim­bre (that’s the sound qual­ity of a note). In­ter­pret­ing a pop hit will also call on the lan­guage cen­tres, Broca and Wer­nicke (the two parts of the outer layer of the brain that link to speech) as well as our tem­po­ral and frontal lobes. But de­spite this clever wiz­ardry go­ing on up there, the brain’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion is not as pro­gres­sive as we might first think. We are born with a pre­dis­po­si­tion to­wards in­ter­pret­ing sounds in par­tic­u­lar ways.

Imag­ine you are lis­ten­ing to a piece of mu­sic, let’s say The Bea­tles’ Lady Madonna (“chil­dren at her feet”). As you’re lis­ten­ing to Mccart­ney and co’s rhythm and blues rol­lick­ing, your brain is re­ceiv­ing a con­stant flow of in­for­ma­tion and, ever an ea­ger stu­dent, do­ing a good job to try and pre­dict what will hap­pen next. To­wards the end of Lady Madonna, you’ll hear the sounds of what you as­sume to be sax­o­phones play­ing, based on the un­usual tim­bre they achieve cou­pled with the ex­pec­ta­tion that sax­o­phones might very well be some­thing the group would add in the stu­dio but you’d be wrong.

Bea­tles drum­mer, Ringo Starr ex­plained: “There’s a lovely sound on Lady Madonna, that’s like sort of muted trum­pets, or a ka­zoo, or some­thing. But, in ac­tual fact, it’s just John and Paul (and Ge­orge as the record­ing sug­gests) sort of hum­ming through their hands into a mike. It was by ac­ci­dent that we dis­cov­ered that sound. We had just fin­ished tap­ing a bit of the record, and John and Paul started to hum into the mike with their hands cupped around their mouths. When we played back

“it’s baf­fling to com­pre­hend but mu­si­cal ac­tiv­ity in­volves nearly ev­ery re­gion of the brain.”

the piece of tape with this bit tagged on the end, it sounded great, so we de­cided to use it.”

But mu­sic isn’t merely a se­ries of pro­cesses, there is an emo­tional con­nec­tion too. Mu­sic, much like mind­ful­ness, brings aware­ness to our key senses but also brings us back to cer­tain ex­pe­ri­ences which could help us to process th­ese in turn. It’s funny to think that while we might not be able to re­call word­for-word con­ver­sa­tions we’ve had with loved ones, we have the abil­ity – when faced with the first ten­ta­tive keys – to re­cite the whole of Queen’s Bo­hemian Rhap­sody by heart. Mu­sic has the abil­ity to trig­ger mem­o­ries that feel oth­er­wise buried or lost. Unique cues are the most ef­fec­tive at bring­ing up mem­o­ries. Not things qui­etly play­ing in the back­ground but real defin­ing mo­ments that can plunge you into the zeit­geist of an era; a fes­ti­val field, a first kiss in a club, even a fu­neral song.

As mind­ful­ness works as a re­lease from daily stresses and strains, mu­sic can act as a real cathar­sis. Some prac­ti­tion­ers would even say that ahead of any sort of mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion, cathar­sis is an im­por­tant step of self-re­al­i­sa­tion. Plat­inum­selling rock band, Florence and the Ma­chine’s Florence Welch has spo­ken be­fore about writ­ing third al­bum, How Big How Blue How Beau­ti­ful and the songs which tackle her real-life frus­tra­tions with a break­down of a re­la­tion­ship.

She told Rolling Stone mag­a­zine in 2015, “I felt stuck in some­thing that wasn’t work­ing. Mak­ing the record and writ­ing about it, I freed my­self.” Through her own hand­i­work and mu­sic production, Welch is able to re­store the full power of free­dom and a po­etic oxy­moron; find­ing strength in in­de­pen­dence de­spite the pangs of a sep­a­ra­tion.

It’s a re­mark­able feel­ing to find your­self so com­pletely con­nected through mu­sic that it has the abil­ity for you to recog­nise your­self in a dif­fer­ent light. Whether that’s those in­te­gral mo­ments of your for­ma­tive years cradling a Dis­c­man in your hand on the bus home from school or to newer mile­stones – the first song at a wed­ding, a stead­fast breakup banger or a com­po­si­tion you con­stantly re­turn to for a mo­ment’s re­flec­tion. Mu­sic tugs at our tem­po­rals like words sim­ply can’t alone. And that’s some­thing to make a song and dance about.

“mu­sic has the abil­ity to trig­ger mem­o­ries… defin­ing mo­ments that plunge you into the zeit­geist of an era.”

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