Why music is a great healer - the art of expression by sound

Music is “The art of expression by sound” so what better therapy could we use for helping our brains to express themselves.

We have all felt the power of music, whilst dancing, singing and relaxing, music affects our moods, and music can heal!

Think of your brain as being built from 10 million fried eggs! The yolk would be the cell nucleus and the white is the cell body, coming into each fried egg! Brain cell are strands called dendrites; they bring signals into the cell. On the other side of the egg are axon tubes; they bring the signal out of the brain. At the end of each tube is a terminal which connects to more dendrites, having first travelled across a mix of chemicals called neurotransmitters. Think of the bigger picture: 10 million fried eggs with many more millions of tubes connecting them up. This is your brain.

When we speak, we fire up a small area of brain cells near our left temple. If we write, another area will fire up. But when we play or sing music, our brains light up like a Christmas tree. Cells all over the brain start to fire messages. They respond to things like, how long is the note? How high or low is the note? What is the melody? What is the harmony? What tune is it? What are the words? What memories do they bring back? – to name just a few. Wow, have you ever thought of music in that way before?

We know that if we listen to a happy beat, we feel happy; if your partner has just left you and you play a sad song, then music can deepen your sorrow.

I use music to make poorly people feel better, and I use music to heal. I work with aphasia which is caused by a stroke to the left-hand side of the brain, or a trauma/impact to the left side of the brain. Often the speech centres have been destroyed. People know what they want to say but the words just do not reach the mouth. They are often trapped in silence. So I use something called “Melodic Intonation Therapy”. I use the fact that music lights up so much of the brain, as a tool to rewire speech.

Think of it this way, if we were travelling by car from London to Scotland, we might drive up the M1 motorway; suddenly we find that a bridge has collapsed! The road is closed. Do we just sit staring at the broken bridge? More likely we would get off the motorway and find a diversionary route. I turn speech into song. It takes a different route to the mouth and, after a lot of practice and repetition, we can learn to speak again. Hence my website name – isingtospeak.com. It does what it says on the tin!

I also work with dementia, again a very cruel and often life-ending illness. There are more than 100 different types of dementia, and to make it harder, often people can have more than one type. Again brain cells are killed off by things like beta amyloid plaques and tangles - when the brain cells die, they are actually called “Tombstones”. However, there is some good news. Dr Doris Bersing PhD wrote a paper which concluded that regularly playing a musical instrument can delay the onset of dementia. Not perfect news, but if you could buy an extra couple of years, would you not be foolish to walk away? There is more good news. One of the final parts of the brain to be affected by dementia is often the musical part of the brain, in particular songs that you sang as a younger person. For me this causes a little concern. Why?

Our grandparents used to sing and party whenever and wherever they could. They had songs like “Daisy”, “Tipperary”, “Show Me the Way to Go Home”, etc. They sang them throughout their lives. And often these songs remained to comfort them at the end of life. This puts a great responsibility on those composers of today who right disposable music, songs that are hits for just a few days, even music that has no words at all! What songs are going to be available when our young become the new elderly? What long-term musical memories will they have? The thought worries me. The quicker we get back to community singing and family singalongs the happier I will be.

My record to date is to return speech to a lovely lady who had a stroke when she was four years old. She is now thirty years old, and had not spoken for 26 years. After just five days of music therapy she started to say her first words. She uses music every day to heal herself. She still has a long road to travel but she has taken the first steps.

There are many types of choirs: gospel, rock, church, male voice, ladies and barbershop, to name but a few. Now think about it for a minute. It will get you and your family out of the house and you will meet new and diverse people. Your social life will improve and you will get free tickets into any show that the choir is appearing in. Mentally you will be on fire - great for stress or depression. Have you ever noticed how many older people are still in choirs long after they had retired? Is this the proof?!

You could well be delaying dementia and it could have a positive effect on your blood pressure. And if you are having a great time, you will release a hormone called serotonin. This is the happy hormone that makes your day special. When you go to bed at night, make certain the room is in darkness - no flashing LEDs. Put on some gentle soothing music and your body will release melatonin, another great hormone, this is the one that repairs parts other hormones can't reach.

People with a stammer can sing if you have Tourette's, music can relieve the tics. Music is a universal language that transcends cultures and many disabilities. If we are depressed, we can use our music to express how we feel. If we are happy, we can turn up the music and have a party. If we are feeling romantic ... say no more!

Let’s not forget bands; accordion bands, rock bands and even brass bands are great for the soul. So what is the way forward? If you want to have music as a tool in the armoury of life, take a leaf out of our grandparents’ book. It’s great to have music to dance to, but singing binds us together and builds memories. Have you read the above and decided that you can't sing? Then for a laugh find others who can’t sing either, form an alternative choir, put song books together and have a party either on a beach, in a pub, the park - wherever your music may take you.

If you have a health issue, always consult your doctor. For more information please visit www.isingtospeak.com, Twitter @isingtospeak or Facebook isingtospeak.

Greg has trained at the Royal Military School of Music (Kneller Hall) London, “University of Tasmania, Australia” (UTAS) and was sponsored by the Home Office to become a special ethnic and medical diets chef. He is a current member of the Herbal Academy of New England, and also works as the director of musical therapies at "Wired Cornwall". He has written a range of books on dementia, aphasia and weight loss, which can be found on his website www.isingtospeak.com.