Music has a very important role to play in our psychological and emotional well-being. This fact came to my attention back in the mid-1980s and again in the early 1990s while I spent several months in hospital. I was undergoing major surgery at the time, followed by intensive rehabilitation. After each operation I was confined to bed and had to remain flat 24/7 - no sitting up allowed. When you can't move it's difficult to keep mentally stimulated. Lying flat with tubes coming out of both arms makes it virtually impossible to read a book when it literally has to be held above your face. Back then there were no smartphones and no tablets, so the only alternative to the book scenario was watching television or playing music. When I was feeling down, bored or in pain, I'd put on my headphones and close my eyes, instantly transporting my mind away from the clinically alien environment of the hospital and off into another world.
Because my surgery has usually involved only the lower half of my body, I have been able to remain awake throughout most of it by having a spinal anaesthetic (similar to an epidural but injected deeper) Back in the 80s we (the patients) were given a Sony Walkman with a choice of cassettes to listen to. Then, lower body numbed and headphones on, the surgery began. The first time I experienced this, my operation lasted five hours and during that time, I listened to Elton John. Yes, FIVE hours of non-stop Elton John! Must have been some kind of record!(no pun intended)
Music not only appears to make time pass more quickly, it also has a positive effect on many other levels. By remaining awake and listening to music while undergoing surgery, the patient is much calmer, they feel more in control and require fewer drugs. This is not just beneficial for the patient. During one operation I had no personal stereo as the surgeon played classical music throughout the entire procedure to keep everyone in the theatre calm and to help them focus.
Many scientific studies have been done on how music effects the brain. Levels of the feel-good chemical Dopamine can be up to 9% higher when listening to music. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is released in response to pleasurable activities such as eating and sex. Although blood pressure can be increased by listening to fast tempo or very loud music, listening to slower tunes has the opposite effect. Relaxing music can be as effective as diazepam in reducing signs of anxiety. It has been found that Mozart has more of an impact on relaxation than other classical composers such as Schubert or Beethoven.
A growing number of music therapists and psychologists are investigating the use of music in medicine to help patients dealing with pain, depression and possibly even Alzheimer's disease. Music also improves the body's immune system function by increasing production of the antibody 'Immunoglobulin A' and the natural killer cells that attack invading viruses. and also reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Interestingly, all of these therapeutic effects only occur if the person selects their own choice of music.
Because the sound of music is rooted in vibration, a music professor at the University of Toronto, along with several researchers is exploring whether sound vibrations absorbed through the body can help ease the symptoms of Parkinson's disease, painful conditions such as fibromyalgia, and depression. Known as vibroacoustic therapy, it involves using low frequency sound to produce vibrations that are applied directly to the body through a bed or a chair embedded with speakers that transmit vibrations at specific computer-generated frequencies.
So, as we express our gratitude, admiration and appreciation for all those who serve our communities and country during the coronavirus pandemic, there is another group of people, who although they probably don't realise it, have an important role to play throughout the lockdown - musicians. To all those who write, play and perform our favourite music - THANK YOU.