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