In the earliest sessions of couples counseling, I ask married couples to tell me about their wedding. Inevitably, as they recount things like the engagement proposal, the party’s caterer, the guest list and the drama, something more trickles out: a constellation of hidden dynamics. The kind that typically morphs into the relationship’s ongoing unspoken rules. Discernibly, “Tell me about your wedding” is a light question, heavy with insight.
Still, what might be an even more useful follow up is “Tell me about the music at your wedding.”
Attend an American wedding and you will, at some point, dutifully gaze with tilted head and half smile at the dance floor as the bride and groom dance to ‘their’ song. Then, comes the father-daughter dance and, on your part, more gazing (or getting another drink at the bar).
Fixed with the half-smile properly on your face, your mind sips on thoughts of your own relationship’s story and status; that is, until it’s interrupted by the sudden beat of the congo line or the funky chicken. And, if you did get that extra drink, your feet might even boogie-woogie into the dance floor’s flock.
So, yeah, imagine a wedding without music. Or, for that matter, any dinner party: the clinking of forks with stale, polite talk. And, why do we just know that that is joyless? And, that deep down, the congo line is way fun.
In the last decade, neuroscientists have made enormous discoveries on the science and psychology of music. No, we don’t need them to tell us that music is important to us. But, they can begin to tell us why.
To start, music beefs up and broadens both our emotional and cognitive capacities, more than any other activity.
And, the words “emotional and cognitive capacities” is just a professional’s mumbo jumbo way of saying, all-out happier and more interesting.
Simple Coping Tool
Therapeutically, it’s why music is one of the first go-to coping tools. After all, if you cannot get yourself out of a bad situation (say, waiting for a partner to arrive home super late and you’ve lots to say), then listening to a favorable playlist can help. And, maybe don’t play intense, rebellious music at such a time (I’m thinking The Black Eye Peas’ Imma Be); as if we need research to know, studies show that this stokes your temper even more. (Yeah, sorta counterproductive, unless you’ve got your Mad Max gear on heading into Thunderdome.)
But, upbeat or sexy music? Solid choices. Such music can even stave off a case of the “spiraling downwards” or quell a sudden spell of “@#% it” or spice up your sense of “Baby, I’m worth it.”
In fact, one music technique is to choose one song that makes you feel the way you most want to be in life. Play it over and over again, even humming it when you’re not near your music. From there, you might even elect to build entire playlists around different ways you want to be.
Where to Discover Music
Had someone grabbed your iPhone just now, what breadth of music would they spy in your playlists, before you grabbed your phone back?
Is there Ben Webster’s saxophone doing Makin’ Whoopee? Or, how about Eva Cassidy’s Time After Time, Bob Dylan’s The Weight, and all the lesser known heart-string singers like Brett Dennen’s Ain’t Gonna Lose You.
Of course, there’s always Pachelbel’s Kanon. (Mmm, how I play that one when I need beauty to resurface.) And, then for when you’re swingin’ it on top of a cloud, how about hiphop’s Gramtik’s Tearing It Up? That one will oomph your partner.
Really, the playlist possibilities are longer than one’s lifetime, which makes it seem much more tempting than getting in to see your therapist this week. Plus, you can hang out with your music anytime you want.
Happiness in Final Years
If you’re not into building a playlist for your present-day pleasures or next week’s unforeseen blues, consider doing so for your final years, period.
Final years? Spend one hour watching the documentary Alive Inside and you’ll get what I mean. Peek at this snippet. Receiving a Sundance Award in 2014, the documentary reveals just how powerful music is to our well-being, though we instead seem to reach for costly drugs that clinically have yet to outperform music’s benefits.
Throughout the film, elderly people suffering from dementia sit non-responsive, slumped in their lonely wheelchairs; that is, until the nursing staff gives them an iPOD chock full of their favorite music. Then! Then, they almost miraculously come vibrantly back to life. Before the earphones and music, no loved ones, as much as they tried, could reach them.
But music! Music reaches us. Deeply.
The Neuroscience of Music
Fascinated by the science and psychology, the musician and physicist John Powell went so far as to write a book on the whole matter: How Music Works. He explains why some tunes sound like harmony to our minds and others, cacophony. But, Powell’s is a thick book ~ and, building your actual playlist seems time better spent.
So, maybe opt for this quick TED talk “How Playing An Instrument Benefits Your Brain.” Frankly, how learning to play an instrument (yes, at any age) benefits your life ~ and you don’t have to be good at it.
As it turns out, creating music lights up virtually every part of the brain, all at once. Your brain’s left side and right side are having to cooperate with each other more than with almost any other activity, forging faster and more diverse neural routes across the brain’s only bridgeway known as the corpus callosum.
When we create music, the brain automatically decides that it has no time nor room for lazy old patterns of thinking and feeling.
Long-Term Benefits of Music
Long-term, this translates into a richer life of vitality. And, how?
As the TED video explains, it’s because:
- Music enriches your memory capacity, making it more vibrant ~ and, at life’s end, memory is what entertains and comforts us most.
- Music increases your resonance to both social and academic pursuits ~ meaning you find and enjoy more friendships, hobbies, and life-callings.
- Music gives you more effective and creative problem-solving agility ~ and, who doesn’t know that life gets more challenging as we carry on.
Ha! All the stuff that not even a therapist can give you. And, all the harmony we never quite knew mattered when dancing to our love songs.