Have you ever heard a song that makes you remember a memory? Or listened to a beat that your body can’t resist moving to? Maybe you have a playlist that puts you to sleep or a high-energy jam for your workout.
Studies show that music has many benefits. Music helps relieve stress and it can stop the increase of cortisol, which puts the body into a flight or fight response. Music has been proven to lower blood pressure, relax a sedated or laboring patient and have a positive effect on growth for premature babies.
“Music in everyone’s life is absolutely therapeutic,” said Kyle Wilhelm, a clinical music therapist and instructor in the School of Music, Theatre and Dance at Colorado State University. “Whether you are focused on the music or not, you are still getting benefits from it.”
Wilhelm has worked for two decades as a credentialed music therapist, a health profession in which music is used in a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs of individuals.
While music therapists provide therapy, anyone can enjoy the benefits of music, said Wilhelm. Here are five tips for using music to improve your daily life.
Use music strategically
“Music doesn’t have to be just background noise,” Wilhelm said. “You can use it to help you do what you want to do.”
If you want to clean the house, put on your favorite upbeat music to encourage your body to move. The same with exercising. If you want to relax at night, use it strategically to calm yourself.
You also can use music to remember something — like we do with the ABCs. It doesn’t matter what type of music it is — pick your preference.
“I cringe when I hear about these studies on how playing Mozart is most beneficial,” Wilhelm said. “Your favorite music is different than mine and so the type of music that would be effective for me is different than what may be effective for you. The idea is that you use it strategically to change where you are and improve your current situation.”
Start where you are, then travel to where you want to be
It’s intuitive to seek out music that matches your mood. That’s why we find ourselves flipping through radio stations to find the “right” song because it matches the moment, Wilhelm explained.
But you can benefit from music by using it to get to where you want to be. It’s called the ISO-principle, often used by music therapists.
The principle is unique to the field of music therapy and was introduced in the late 1940s by Altshuler as a method of mood management. The concept can work in everyday life, Wilhelm said.
The idea is that you start with music that matches your mood, and then gradually alter it to affect the desired mood state. Music therapists use it both to alter mood state, but also physiological responses such as heart rate or blood pressure.
For example, if you’d like to prepare your child for bedtime, start with music that fits their mood – such as up-beat playtime music. Then, every song after that should be slightly slower so that the last few songs are relaxing, slow-tempo music, which should have your children in that ready-for-bed mood.
Use music as a cue
Music can cue memories and positively reinforce mood and behavior.
For example, Wilhelm said, his family has a playlist for dinner time which has songs with lyrics themed “everything is going to be alright.” This helps set a positive mood for his family at dinner time.
Then at night, he has a relaxing playlist for his 18-month-old child, who associates the music with sleep time.
Music can also trigger negative associations. For example, if you listen to Mozart to calm you while you’re in pain, your mind might learn to create an association between Mozart and pain. To make associations and cues that are beneficial, the creation of the association must be positive.
Pick up an instrument
Research has shown that music activates nearly every region of the brain. Wilhelm points to how harmony and melody are shown to activate different areas of the brain. When you bring all parts of music together, the brain makes new connections.
“There is lots of research on how musicians’ brains are different from non-musicians’ brains,” Wilhelm said. “If you engage in music, your brain is going to change and the benefits show in just a few weeks of instrumental instructions.”
Learning even a simple instrument, like the ukulele or a hand drum, is participating in brain exercise, he explained.
“Research shows this contributes to immune system health and helps stave off neurological disorders — it fills up your neuro bucket so when things come along, you feel more agile because your brain is making better connections.
“So keep learning music, even if it is by yourself,” he added.
But if you can play with others, that also has its benefits.
Enjoy music with others
“Music can bring people together and connect people on a subconscious level,” Wilhelm said. “Studies show that choirs that sing together, their breathing and heart rates synchronize.”
“We need to try and find ways to make music together beyond church and beyond Christmas time,” he added. “For the most part, we don’t make music together as many other cultures do. We have a voice complex — that is if we can’t sing well we think we shouldn’t sing. But the benefit of making music is greater than the stigma of feeling like we are no good at it.
“It could do us a lot of good and bring us together and connect people.”