More than Melody

For years researchers have studied why and how music has such an enormous effect on people. Music has been found to boost athletic performance; soothe and heal injuries; help depression, autism, and Alzheimer's; and increase academic performance. It seems there is something more to those tunes that get our toes tapping and our fingers snapping.

Education and Music "But Mom, I do better on my homework when I'm listening to music!" Most parents have heard this, possibly repeatedly, from their children. And your children may be right, depending on the type of music that is playing. While things like popular music, TV, and chatting online all distract from homework and increase the likelihood of making mistakes, non-vocal, calming music can sometimes help a child focus more on their studies.

But what really causes an increase in your child's academic performance is music education. Studies repeatedly show that learning to play and read music correlates with positive results in learning capabilities.

Think about it--getting an 89 percent on an essay is a pretty good grade. However, if your child plays 89 percent of the notes correctly in the end of the year concert, neither your child, the band teacher, or the other fifty kids in the band are going to be pleased with his or her performance. The unique discipline that comes from learning and performing music helps children in many areas of their lives.

In one study, two elementary schools were compared--one in which children studied piano formally for three consecutive years and one that required no formal musical training. Students from the "music-learning" school had significantly better vocabulary and verbal sequencing than the other group. Another study in Switzerland tested 1,200 children in 50 schools for various effects of music education, and found that children actively involved in music learned to read more quickly and acquired other languages more readily. These children also had lower stress levels and demonstrated more enjoyment in school then those not involved with music.

Using music in the classroom to teach math and reading is a new concept, but one that has proven to be very effective. Gregory Stevens, an algebra teacher from Elk Grove, California, has been using music in his classroom for several years now. To teach his students the quadratic formula, he has them sing the words of the formula to the chorus of "Jingle Bells." Because of this exercise, every one of his students is able to memorize this complicated formula.

Starlene Hansen, a student of his in 2000, says she still remembers the song (and, consequently, the formula), ten years later: "[The song] made an unfamiliar concept with an incredibly foreboding name into a simple and fun song." Hansen continues, "Mr. Stevens also used the 'Tomorrow' song from Annie and had us sing it the day before a major assignment was due, to increase our awareness and eliminate the excuse of not knowing when something was due." Hansen feels that singing made the mundane task of remembering due dates fun and created unique accountability.

Exercise and Music It isn't surprising that music is a boon when it comes to working out. After all, walk into any gym--almost all the members are wearing earphones. But music doesn't only keep us entertained while exercising--it has been proven to increase performance. Even competitive athletes take advantage of its powers: track star Haile Gebrselassie set an indoor world record for the 2000 meters in 1999 by synchronizing his stride to the song "Scatman." But why exactly is music so helpful in our quest for fitness?

Understanding how music affects exercising is dependent on grasping the entrainment (not entertainment) principle. Entrainment is when two or more unconnected rhythms synchronize, or begin to have the same beat. Scientist Christian Huygens discovered this principle in 1665, when he placed two pendulum clocks on a wall and found that they eventually began to swing at the same rate. This same principle explains why the footsteps of a jogger fall into the same rhythm as the music he or she is listening to.

Because of the entrainment principle, our bodies naturally push themselves to be in sync with the music that we are listening to. When exercising it's important to have several different music tracks, with varying beats, so that you can warm up to a slower beat and work your way up to a faster one, which will elevate your heart rate.

According to Dr. Costas Karageorghis, a researcher studying the relationship between music and exercise, the ideal tempo for a power walker is 137 to 139 BPM (beats per minute); for a runner, it would be around 147 to 160 BPM. The wonderful thing is, it doesn't matter what kind of music you use--if you can find a song with the right beat, whether it's classical, country, or rock, it will push you and motivate you just the same.

However, the entrainment principle isn't the only thing that makes music such a powerful motivator to exercise. Music also has the incredible power to boost positive feelings and block out bad ones. In fact, music can take away much of the body's awareness of aching lungs, beating heart, and lactic acid. It can reduce a person's perception of effort by 10 percent, which can make all the difference when you are pushing for those last minutes of a tough workout.

Music has also been proven to help with consistency in workouts. In 2005, Christopher Capuano, director of Fairleigh Dickinson University's School of Psychology, conducted a study which tracked a small group of overweight or obese women for twenty-four weeks while they dieted and exercised. Half of the women were told to listen to music of their choice while exercising. While all the participants lost weight, the women who listened to music were more consistent with their exercise routines (they adhered to the program 98 percent of the time), resulting in greater weight loss than the other group (who adhered only 68 percent of the time).

Healing and Music We've all heard miraculous stories of healing, some involving music and some not. But no one can disagree that music is effective in healing the mind and body alike.

One of the amazing properties of music is that it can reach parts of the brain and evoke memories that speech simply can't reach. Therapists frequently use music from a patient's past to connect with them, often with significant results.

Jennifer Birchell of Utah, who works as a music therapist at Sunshine Terrace Foundation, a facility that assists the elderly with rehabilitation and assisted living, sees miracles of music healing almost daily in her work. "[One] man that I once worked with had dementia," she says. "We found out that he loved baseball and used to play professionally. So we played 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame,' and it helped him connect a little bit. His family came in and played it with him, and they were able to reach him. They were thrilled."

Birchell describes another man who had a stroke, which caused him to lose brain and muscle function on one side of his body. Like many other stroke patients, he also lost the ability to speak. "When someone has a stroke, . . . we've found that [sometimes] they can't speak, but they can sing," she says. This man was particularly angry about his lack of success when Birchell was asked to visit him. "When I asked him to sing with me, he got really angry. He knew he couldn't sing. But I told him to just try, and I started singing 'You Are My Sunshine.' His eyes got really big and excited because the words were coming out of his mouth and getting clearer and clearer. From there, we took bits of the song and turned them into phrases he could use. His wife came in and he was able to sing to her, 'I love you.' I worked with him for only three weeks and then he was able to go home and live with his wife."

Music helps people learn and develop because there are so many different elements to it--voices, rhythm, harmony, all which are processed in different areas of the brain. "Exercising" the different parts of the brain by using music helps encourage growth and stimulates parts of the brain that may be damaged.

Often, when music therapists work with groups who have some kind of brain disease, such as Alzheimer's, many of the participants seem almost asleep and uninterested at the beginning. The therapists start with slow music, and then they gradually increase the beat. The body entrains itself with the rhythm and gradually increases in responsiveness. Eventually, the previously unresponsive patients are clapping and interacting in a way that they couldn't do without musical encouragement.

Music, whether it is used for education, exercise, or healing, can make a huge difference in lives. Anyone who has listened to an inspired choir in a church meeting knows the effect that their simple harmonies have on people. Somehow music is able to connect with parts of us that speaking just can't reach. While research continues to be done, the whys behind the power of music have yet to be discovered. For now, the reason these joyful strains have such an effect on us will remain an amazing and wondrous mystery.

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