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When the sound of music relieves stress

On International Stress Awareness week, which begins on November 7 every year, Lounge explores how music therapy can help with stress management

Music helps relieve stress
Music helps relieve stress (Pexels (Andrea Piacquadio))

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 Don't we all have that playlist, whether it is filled with classical symphonies or hip-hop beats, or some heavy metal, that helps manage frustration or centre energy? For thousands of years, music has been found to calm, heal and inspire. All over the world, mothers sing lullabies to soothe their babies, while sages and monks have always used the power of chanting to invoke higher forces. People from various backgrounds come together to sing in devotion, finding healing in the sound of that music. So yes, music, besides being a form of expression, is also an easy stress relief remedy, something many of us escape into when we feel anxious and stressed. 

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Music therapy is slowly and steadily emerging as an effective, goal-oriented method to improve a patient’s overall mood and well-being. Research has shown that musical training can change brain structure and function to a great extent. It can also improve our long-term memory and lead to better brain development for those who start listening to it from a young age. Sound has the power to centre us by relieving stress through its strong ability to heal and revive the mind, body and soul of each individual. 

Aastha Luthra, a clinical music therapist based out of Gurgaon, explains how. “Music therapy involves an interactive way of using music by a professionally trained therapist in a one-on-one setting or in a group setting," she says, adding that music can help regulate attention, emotion, cognitive behaviour and communication in a person. According to her, a music therapist looks into the prior information about their participants, shared by the family or by the individual themselves. “We also look into patterns of listening to songs and develop a relationship over it," she says, adding that it isn't only about being exposed to different genres (of music) but also involving and engaging in creating/ playing music. "For instance, anger issues are usually dealt with using a mix of playing the drums rhythmically and sustaining the tempo,” she says. 

Biological rhythms and beat structures in music play an important role in relieving stress, and one should also look at the tempo of the songs played. “If the stress is physical in nature, then happy songs tend to fare better. Genres such as country music, jazz, and classical (western, Indian) can help in those conditions. If the stress is mental in nature, then folk music, instrumental(wind, string and keys), and sometimes rock and pop as well help to fight back situational stress,” she says. At times, even 'noises', such as sounds of crickets, trucks, horns, and traffic that are now a part of our daily lives can be used to manage stress, she adds.

Current findings indicate that listening to music of around 60 beats per minute can cause the brain to synchronise with the beat and create alpha brainwaves (frequencies from 8 - 14 hertz or cycles per second). These alpha brain waves are present when we are usually relaxed and conscious. The mechanics of music influencing our body is quite exciting as it stimulates both sides of the brain.

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Luthra reveals that when neuro researchers got the participants to listen to music, they saw “fireworks in the MRIs.” She shares that the MRIs indicated multiple areas of the brains were lit up as the respondents processed the sound. The researchers then analysed the data to comprehend elements like melody and rhythm and then put it all together into a unified musical experience. “Numerous studies have proven that when we play/sing music, all brain areas are lit up simultaneously but are also generating new neural pathways. Using music is as simple as eating food. If used carefully, music can benefit not only mentally but physically,” she says.

For managing stress with the help of music therapy, she recommends a few things

Watch your playlist

It always helps you to know how you are feeling right at that particular moment. It also helps you to find out if your moods and weather it is getting better or worse. If it is constantly the same, seek help from a therapist.

Watch your listening volume

The volume is average in a normal sound zone(where the background noises are in control), and it is considered safe. If it is too high or too low in a normal sound zone, consult a therapist.

Attend live gigs
Concerts help you to develop social communication as you tend to meet like-minded people and your brain adjusts to the different versions of your favourite songs. It helps you to become open-minded and an improviser.

Play music

Playing acoustic instruments helps stimulate both sides of the brain and generate neuro pathways.

Share music

A music circle (group sessions involving singing together, e.g. antakshiri, jamming etc.) helps engagement and bonding

Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based therapist



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