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May 9, 2014

Music Makes the World Rock ’n Roll

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As a newspaper editor, I used to play music on either computer speakers or a garage sale ghetto blaster, quietly, as background to the scanners, ringing phones and other clamor of the newsroom. To some, it was an annoyance and, understandably, when it was a distraction, the volume went down or off.

But, there were few who didn’t grudgingly give in for a few minutes on Friday afternoons for the “loud song of the day” when the crazy city editor would crank a rock, reggae or catchy pop song to herald the end of the work week for all save the night deskers and those unfortunate to draw the weekend shifts.

Heads would bob, some would sing along, but it cranked the enthusiasm and, I like to think, morale of the place heading out for the weekend. OK, there were some frantic hand waves to signal an important phone interview, but most enjoyed the interlude.

There’s a reason auto makers have been putting radios in cars since they figured out how to do it on a mass production basis – people are almost inexorably linked to music in all aspects of our lives.

It’s a balm while enduring the mundane drive on a long trip, it’s soothing at the end of the day, it’s just plain good to be able to tune in to our favorite style of music and even change those styles up to suit the occasion.

Image courtesy of (Sira Anamwong) /

Image courtesy of (Sira Anamwong) /

Music is an intrinsic part of our lives and it’s been shown to be good for whatever ails you.

Some researchers have even gone to lengths to determine the hows and whys of thrills and chills we get from some pieces of music.

A study by Emily C. Nusbaum and Paul J. Silvia, of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, NC. — “Shivers and Timbres, Personality and the Experience of Chills From Music” — found that “most people report that listening to music sometimes creates chills — feeling goose bumps and shivers on the neck, scalp, and spine — but some people seem to never experience them. The present research examined who tends to experience music-induced chills and why. A sample of young adults completed measures of chills … and their music preferences, habits, and experiences. Latent variable models found that openness to experience was the strongest predictor of the typical experience of chills during music.”

There you go, “openness to experience,” or freeing up that matter between your ears and letting some music in, is the best way to get the most from a listening experience. Hey, it’s cheaper than booze or drugs, better for you too.

Makes you smarter, too.

A 2008 study by researchers Marie Forgeard, Ellen Winner, Andrea Norton, and Gottfried Schlaug of eight to 11-year-olds found that those who had extra-curricular music classes developed higher verbal IQ and visual abilities in comparison to those with no musical training (Forgeard et al., 2008).

“Children who received at least three years of instrumental music training outperformed their control counterparts on two outcomes closely related to music (auditory discrimination abilities and fine motor skills) and on two outcomes distantly related to music (vocabulary and nonverbal reasoning skills). Duration of training also predicted these outcomes. Contrary to previous research, instrumental music training was not associated with heightened spatial skills, phonemic awareness, or mathematical abilities.

“While these results are correlational only, the strong predictive effect of training duration suggests that instrumental music training may enhance auditory discrimination, fine motor skills, vocabulary, and nonverbal reasoning…”

Music can even help soothe not only the soul, but can improve our physical and mental health.

Pharmacist Catherine Ulbricht, in a June, 2013, article in Psychology Today, readily admitted she doesn’t always recommend “a bottle of something for what ails you…

“For most people, music is an important part of daily life. Some rely on music to get them through the morning commute, while others turn up a favorite playlist to stay pumped during a workout. Many folks even have the stereo on when they’re cooking a meal, taking a shower, or folding the laundry.

“Music is often linked to mood. A certain song can make us feel happy, sad, energetic, or relaxed. Because music can have such an impact on a person’s mindset and well-being, it should come as no surprise that music therapy has been studied for use in managing numerous medical conditions.”

As outlined by Ulbricht, five areas of the human condition that can be aided by music therapy, including: autism (“People who have autism spectrum disorders often show a heightened interest and response to music. This may aid in the teaching of verbal and nonverbal communication skills and in establishing normal developmental processes.); dementia (“There is evidence that music therapy may increase responsiveness to antidepressant medications.); infant development (“Soothing music may help newborns be more relaxed and less agitated. Pre-term newborns exposed to music may have increased feeding rates, reduced days to discharge, increased weight gain, and increased tolerance of stimulation. They may also have reduced heart rates and a deeper sleep after therapy.”); sleep quality (“In older adults, music may result in significantly better sleep quality as well as longer sleep duration, greater sleep efficiency, shorter time needed to fall asleep, less sleep disturbance, and less daytime dysfunction.”)

Astonishingly, for a pharmacist, she outlines how music therapy has even been shown to be as effective as powerful sedative chloral hydrate in “inducing sleep or sedation in children undergoing EEG testing.”

Music has been shown time and again to spark neurons in our brain. Proven through batteries of tests, music unquestionably makes us feel better, can make us peppier, calm us, or invoke memories of a time and place in our past.

For instance, a 2011 Canadian study, published in Nature Neuroscience, has shown that plugging in to your favorite music could help melt away a bad mood.

Researchers at McGill University in Montreal showed that listening to pleasurable music of any description induced ‘musical chills’, which triggered the release of the feel-good chemical dopamine.

“We all know from our own individual experiences that listening to music can affect mood,” said Bridget O’Connell, head of information at the mental health charity Mind.

“Some people listen to music for a boost on a tough day, while others might use music to keep them awake during a long car journey or to purge a negative feeling. The brain is very complicated — and there are many elements involved in feelings of pleasure — but it’s unsurprising that research suggests dopamine release is linked with feelings of pleasure induced by music.”

Heck, music can even help you you turn a better time in that 5K or marathon race you plan to run.

Anyone who has ever plugged in the ear buds for a trot on the treadmill or a gym workout can attest to those benefits.

Photo by Jeff Drongowski via Wikimedia.

Photo by Jeff Drongowski via Wikimedia.

“A study at Brunel University in West London has shown that music can help increase endurance by as much as 15 per cent, helping to lower the perception of effort during exercise, as well as increasing energy efficiency by between one and three per cent.

“The best choices for exercise are up-beat songs that match the tempo of your running stride and which can have a metronomic effect on the body, enabling you to run for longer.”

Music is even shown to have a soothing effect on arguably the most stressful, tense and dangerous environments in societies – prisons.

Image courtesy of (imagerymajestic) /

Image courtesy of (imagerymajestic) /

In a piece for her website,, RN Lorry Schoenly, a nurse author and educator specializing in the field of correctional health care, noted she was driving home from a particularly stressful day when she switched on the radio and the song Summer Breeze, by Seals & Croft, wafted from the car stereo.

“In an instant the terrible day was behind me and my mind was peaceful.”

“Researchers have found that music lowers anxiety and improves the mood on a variety of patient groups including cancer and surgical patients. A Cochrane Systematic Review of 51 studies found music to be helpful in reducing pain. This got me wondering about the use of music for our inmate patient population. Could music help reduce aggression and anxiety behind bars?

“Earlier this year the federal prison system began allowing MP3 players with a limited music list available to inmates through the commissary. This is a great idea and I hope the health care staff uses this music option for therapeutic purposes…”

I would assume gangsta rap and some violent forms of music might be off the commissary music lists, but you get the idea. Certainly, a musical escape from the cacophony of life behind bars has to have a calming effect on a prisoner, however dire their prospects might be in the cells.

So, go ahead, crank that classic pop tune that reminds you of your best summer at camp, the most memorable days of your high school experience, the girl who broke your heart, the beat that drives your legs in the gym, on the trail or in the race. Yeah, even in the office or the shop floor.

People have been making music for centuries and there’s a good reason – it’s good for us. Each and every one who is able to hear and enjoy it.


Chris Malette is a retired newspaper journalist with 35 years of experience as a reporter and city editor. Over his career, Malette covered municipal and federal politics, military, health and court beats. He has reported from Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti and covered relief efforts in Honduras in the wake of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. He now works for SPN News as an editorial columnist.