Anthropologists tell us that before there were spoken languages, and certainly before there were written languages, there was music as a form of communication between human beings. There has always been something magical about music and its effects on our emotions and body movements. Just watch a group of little children when someone starts playing a fun piece of rhythmic music. The kids will immediately start dancing to the beat of the music with big smiles all over their faces, shouting shrieks of joy. Adults respond somewhat more “maturely” but feet will start to pat the floor and bodies will begin to sway in time with the music. If we could peer into our brains when the music starts as scientists are able to do with modern brain imaging techniques, we would see neurons lighting up over many parts of the brain, stimulating functions such as memory, timing, and emotions.
The secret powers of music as a movement disorder therapy became a focus of musicians and neuroscientists in the 1990’s when they discovered the utility of music to enable movement in people who are disabled due to brain injury, disease, or just the way it’s always been. I became fascinated by this subject in 2015 and began a program of incorporating music into my exercise program to help me with symptoms of Parkinson’s disease (PD).
The way that I think about it, there are two major categories of how music affects our brains: emotional and neurological. Not to minimize the value of its positive emotional effects, I am focusing on its neurological effects here.
I’ve seen countless videos of people with Parkinson’s (PWPs) who were frozen in place, only to become almost immediately unfrozen by the sound of a rhythmic song, even able to dance. PWPs have also reported that they can get such a boost in their movement by simply “hearing” a particular song in their heads. A friend of mine and fellow-PWP volunteered that to me directly.
When I’m on a power-walk or working out at the gym and my levodopa has worn off, I can feel the boost in my stride, posture, and arm swing 3-5 minutes after I switch on my music, which for me is nearly always a march, a type of music I really enjoy. I know that it’s more than an emotional effect.
There are two important terms to insert at this point. RAS is the stimulation or cueing of the rhythm of the music. Entrainment is the neurological mechanism by which the PWP’s movement is facilitated.
These are a couple of imperfect metaphors I like to use to help visualize the concept of entrainment. In the drawing on the left, the street hot rod, representing neurological motor signals, is “hitching a ride” with the draft from the red race car, representing auditory signals from the brain. In the drawing on the right, the space shuttle is hitching a ride on the giant booster rockets, representing the cueing of the auditory signals coming from the rhythm of the music which are giving a free ride to the motor signals along an alternative neural pathway.
All that is necessary for the PWP is to get in sync with or “lock-in” to the rhythm of the music, just like you would do in singing or dancing. The results are truly marvelous!
What is most encouraging about all of this is that scientists have only scratched the surface as to the potential neurological benefits of rhythm and music. The best is yet to come!
In the meantime if you are a PWP, put on some rhythmic music, turn up the volume, and get moving!
The Woodlands, Texas, USA
Michael Thaut: Rhythm, Music, and the Brain: Scientific Foundations and Clinical Applications
Michael Thaut & Volker Hoemberg: Handbook of Neurologic Music Therapy
Alex Kerten with David Brinn: Goodbye Parkinson’s, Hello life!: The Gyro-Kinetic Method for Eliminating Symptoms and Reclaiming Your Good Health
Robert McMechan with Allison Woyiwada: Allison’s Brain
Oliver Sacks: Musicophilia
Schneck, Daniel J: Basic Anatomy and Physiology for the Music Therapist
Heather A. MacTavish: Songs, Science and Spirit