Aging in Place with Grace

Humming a tune is really music therapy!

Do you ever catch yourself humming or singing a favorite tune?  Music, or the simple production of sounds, has always served as the most fundamental part of human communication. It is also a form of self-expression and a tool for managing our emotions.  From sitting in traffic to when we’re feeling isolated or lonely, we turn to music as a form entertainment and as distraction from boredom and negative thoughts.  What many of us don’t realize, however, is that there is a field of alternative health care that is completely centered on music and it is called, oddly enough, music therapy

It is common to use music to relax and de-stress.  But beyond this, research has shown it can boost productivity, encourage creativity, cultivate endurance and strengthen memory and learning.  Who knew music could do all of that!  Actually, accredited music therapists do and they are the ones to seek out when you want targeted information on music therapy.

Music therapy generally involves using a variety of instruments, singing or moving to music, vocalizing sounds, writing songs or just sitting back and enjoying the sounds of musical notes.  It can be soft or loud, harmonic or discordant and everything in between.  And because each of us has different anatomy with respect to our ears, we each hear and perceive these sounds differently as well. 

Music, at its most basic level is a concoction of notes, scales and chords (combinations of notes).  Here is the biological science behind all of this:

“The “mechanics” of the production of notes “can be a versatile as a piece of wood and as complex as a synthesizer or even the human voice.  Each of these produces sound waves and vibrations that travel to the air until they reach our ear.  The sensory nerves in the ear then transmit the vibrations to the auditory nerve, which carries these impulses to the brain.  It is up to the brain, then to decipher and interpret these sounds. This is where music exerts its profound power.” And this is also why each of us responds differently to these sounds.”

Because of the physiological changes the brain can invoke, music can serve as an excellent conduit for altering or modifying behavior.

It is interesting to note that the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on Aging held a hearing in 1991 titled, “Forever Young: Music and Aging,”  which was touted as the first hearing of its kind in addressing how music can play a critical role in the care of those affected by Alzheimer’s, stroke and other similar conditions.  The purpose of the hearing was to underscore and promote the need for research to authenticate what we now know – that music has a very positive influence on us in many ways, particularly as we age.  In fact, one person made the comment in this hearing that “music is better than medicine!” 

It is a well-known and documented fact that Alzheimer’s patients, who can no longer talk or communicate, still have the ability to sing and dance.  For someone affected by aphasia, or the inability to communicate verbally or by writing, music therapy can be the key to recovering some of these skills.  Those with aphasia can have difficulty speaking, writing, reading, recognizing the names of objects or even understanding what is being said by someone.  This can be the result of a brain injury, tumor or infection, when the brain is deprived of oxygen, as in a stroke, or as a complication of Alzheimer’s.

For those who are diagnosed with schizophrenia and autism, music therapy can help them detach from their isolated worlds, draw them out and help them focus more.

Using music and songs that are familiar to the patient causes the areas of the brain that store language retrieval and recognition to be stimulated and often strengthened.  This can result in a recollection of words of a song that the patient can repeat, though often times the meaning of those words is lost.  Many of us remember the nursery rhymes we sang as children because we sang them over and over. In the same vein, singing those rhymes now can bring back fond memories and experiences that may have long been forgotten.

 For stroke victims and people with neurological disorders

Patients who suffer from impaired movement as a result of stroke or neurological disorders also benefit from music therapy. It is said that when they listen to the rhythm of the music, their muscles move according to the beat of the music. It helps them move more freely and tends to relax some of their muscles. Continuous movements will help improve their impaired motor skills.

We all want to “stay sharp” as we age, so we do our best to exercise our muscles to stay fit.  A non-profit facility in Santa Barbara, California utilizes a program called CFIT or Cognitive Fitness and Innovative Therapies, or a “brain gym,” as some would call it.  This program uses board games, Wii Fit and music therapy to keep the mental acuity of the brain sharp.

Music can also be one of the keys to fighting depression, decreasing anxiety and elevating our moods.  Music is obtainable almost everywhere and in every format.  From smooth jazz to rock and roll, there is a form a music that appeals to every one of us. 

 Other benefits

Studies show that music can help keep the heart rate, blood pressure and breathing at a more stable state. Some findings also claim that it helps lower the hormone cortisol amount, which rises due to stress, and it increases the number of “feel-good hormones” or endorphins released by the body. It helps keep depression and anxiety at bay and prevent chronic stress.

Some people can’t make it through a day without music at home, in their car, at work or taking it with them wherever they go!  It can stimulate creativity and thoughtfulness, calm us or rev us up to get moving!  I love what is called “smooth jazz” on Sunday mornings.  It puts me in a week-end relaxation mood, while 80’s and 90’s rock and roll puts me in the mood to get projects accomplished.  Frankly, I can’t imagine a day without music!

So when someone stares at you because you are humming a tune, just smile and know that you actually are exercising your brain!

 Image credit:

Music and the Brain, Laurence O’Donnell,

Aphasia & the Impact of Music Therapy on the Elderly Patient

Helping Seniors Stay Sharp Through Music Therapy and Fitness

MusicWorks, The Delaware Valley’s Premier Music Therapy Provider 

Music Therapy, jb Music Therapy

Recovery Connections, How Music Therapy Works