Keep a Song in Your Heart

by | Last updated May 28, 2024 | Brain Health

Could listening to natural sounds and music improve your health? How about playing musical instruments? Do they offer benefits? Is all music beneficial for healing? We cover some of the latest research in this blog.

Group Singing Improves Mental Health

Even for individuals who suffer with anxiety and depression, singing in a group on a weekly basis improves their mental health.1 Another study found that for individuals 65 years or older, utilizing music and singing in health care can improve quality of life, improve memory, encourage social engagement, and reduce perception of pain, anxiety, and depression.2

If You Can’t Sing, Listen More to Nature

Nature is full of musical sounds—the bustling trees, the babbling brooks, the roaring oceans, different bird songs, the cicadas and katydids in the summertime, the falling rain. If you want to reduce your stress, walk in a green environment or at least hear these sounds in a recording. Sophisticated studies show that listening to natural sounds (even on a recording) actually controls the autonomic nervous system in positive ways during stress. 3 There is greater parasympathetic nerve activity, or rest-digest division of the autonomic nervous system. Digestion improves, the heart rate slows down, and more blood goes to the heart. Blood vessels relax causing the blood pressure to decrease. Protein synthesis improves and consequently immune efficiency improves.

Additionally, the same study showed, by MRI, that when listening to natural sounds, the brain connectivity reflected an outward-directed focus of attention. In stark contrast, when listening to artificial sounds, the brain connectivity reflected an inward-directed focus of attention, similar to states observed in anxiety and depression.

Music May Help the Brain to Recover from Trauma

Interestingly enough, after a left-sided stroke, many individuals suffer from serious speech disorders but are often able to sing complete texts relatively fluently. Emphasizing the rhythm of a song or phrase can help one to recover their ability to speak.4  Gabby Giffords, who suffered a head injury from a bullet, learned to speak again by singing first.

Music Helps Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s disease (PD) attacks the dopamine-producing cells of the brain. Tremors, lack of balance, muscle stiffness, impaired mobility, and mood changes result. Difficulty in swallowing and pneumonia are commonly seen in P.D. Singing improves the muscles used for swallowing and respiratory control. In preliminary studies, singing appeared to be as beneficial as medicine in improving mood and movement in Parkinson’s. 5,6

Researchers have found an interesting fact that has encouraging implications for mental depression and Parkinson’s disease. Dopamine is one of the neurotransmitters involved in maintaining a positive mood. As mentioned previously, PD adversely affects one’s dopamine level. The dopamine level in the brain is reduced in clinical depression. Listening to classical music enhances the activity of genes involved in dopamine secretion and transport, learning and memory, and decreases the gene activity involved in mediating neurodegeneration.7

Music May Improve Stroke Recovery

Music therapy can improve speech recovery and language skills in stroke patients. A meta-analysis revealed music therapy can help motor (nerve-muscle) recovery.8  Daily music listening can improve auditory and verbal memory, focus attention and mood, as well as induce structural gray matter changes in the early stage of stroke recovery. Gray matter is composed of nerve cell bodies, dendrites, and unmyelinated axons.9 Additionally, playing musical instruments may improve the mood, concentration, brain, and motor function in stroke victims.10

Help for the Elderly

A six month randomized controlled trial studied the effect of music on the gait of elderly participants and showed that introducing a music-based multitask exercise program for community-dwelling elderly people may lead to improved gait, balance, and a reduction in the rate of falling.11

Good Music May Reduce Pain!

By activating sensory pathways that compete with pain pathways, stimulating emotional responses, and engaging cognitive attention, music helps reduce pain. 12 Relaxation and listening to soothing music, separately or together, significantly reduces patients’ pain and pain medications following major abdominal surgery.13 Another study found that listening to music or natural sounds can reduce chronic pain by up to 21 per cent and depression by up to 25 per cent in individuals who had chronic pain from intervertebral disc pathology, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis.  The music groups in this study also reported feeling 9 to 18 per cent less disabled than those who hadn’t listened to music.14

Good Music Strengthens and Protects the Brain

Music training in younger years can prevent the decay in speech listening skills in later life. Older adults who had musical training in their youth were 20% faster in identifying speech sounds than their non-musician peers on speech identification tests.15

What age to start? Active play sessions with music improved babies’ brain processing of both music and new speech sounds. How? A rhythmic pattern in music can also improve the ability to detect and make predictions about rhythmic patterns in speech.16  In another study, scientists found that beginning formal lessons on a musical instrument prior to age 14 and continuing lessons for a decade appears to enhance key areas in the brain that support speech recognition.17 There is more good news though. Music training, begun as late as high school, may help improve the teenage brain response to sound and sharpen hearing and language skills.18 Music involves learning which helps us to learn better!

More Brain Advantages

Practicing classical music improves the executive functions in a child’s front brain and has been linked to thicker frontal lobe cortex in areas that relate to concentration, working memory, organizational and planning skills. It also stimulates the motor area in the posterior frontal brain. The advantage of practicing good music also appears to correlate to self-control and processing of emotions.19

Music May Help the Disadvantaged Child

Learning to play a musical instrument or to sing can help disadvantaged children strengthen their reading and language skills. How? Musical training appears to enhance the way a child’s nervous system processes sounds in a busy environment.20

Better than Rosetta Stone

Singing in a foreign language can significantly improve learning how to speak it. In one test, English-speaking participants who learned Hungarian through singing performed twice as well as participants who learned by speaking Hungarian phrases.21 Playing a musical instrument also can help older adults retain their listening skills and ward off age-related cognitive declines.22 Just a half hour of playing a musical instrument improves blood flow to the left side of the brain. The good news is that this is true for novices as well as musicians.23n

Individuals who practiced a basic movement task to music showed increased structural connectivity between the regions of the brain that process sound and control movement. For four weeks, study-participants practiced a new motor skill. One group of participants practiced without music while the other group practiced the same movements with music. The results were interesting. Using MRI scans, researchers found that the music group showed a significant increase in structural connectivity in the white matter tract that links auditory and motor regions on the right side of the brain.24 The non-music group showed no change. White matter is composed of myelinated nerve fibers (axons). Myelin accelerates the speed of nerve signal transmission.

Not All Music is Good

The explicit sexual and violent lyrics of rock, heavy metal, and rap often clash with the themes of self-control, responsible living, and moral values. Just because a certain song picks us up doesn’t mean that is good for us. We must ask, does listening to the song encourage responsible living or does it take us to dark places. Listening to music with degrading sexual lyrics is related to advances in a range of sexual activities (including sexual intercourse) among adolescents.25

When good music is played, it subdues rude and uncultivated natures, quickens thought, awakens sympathy, and banishes the gloom and anger that destroy courage, and weaken effort. Good music engages the frontal brain to energize the mind and body and facilitates balance and self-control. Musical compositions ideally should be melodic and demonstrate symmetry, and a firm, consistent rhythm.

In contrast, detrimental music compromises the frontal brain breaking all barriers that are there to prevent us from being violated morally and mentally. Bad music diverts the mind from the truth and reality into a fantasy world. The “back beat” in rock music causes nervous tension because it goes against our bodies’ natural rhythmic cycles. Everything in nature, including the human body, has rhythm. There is rhythm to the heartbeat, respiration, digestion, speech, and even brain functions. When the body is introduced to this foreign rhythm it is thrown into a state of alarm.

Story Time: Keep a Song in Your Heart

North America was at one time colonized by a variety of Europeans—Spanish, French, English, and more. In the 1770’s the two major European powers were the English and the French. At first the English settlers and Native Americans got along fairly well but by 1774 some of the tribes* in the northeast had given up their land to the English. The French encroached upon this English territory to use it as a trade route thus causing a conflict in which the Indians sided with the French. This story is set in this time frame.

In his book, What’s So Good about Tough Times?, Joe Wheeler tells a true, heartrending story of a special family called the Leiningers – Dad, Mom, two girls, and three boys. Regina, the youngest daughter, was especially fond of singing hymns. She had her favorites that she would insist on singing nearly every night for worship. One day when their Mom and oldest brother were away, the Indians hunted down and killed all the fathers and older boys in the village. Regina and her older sister saw their father and brothers killed while the Indians took all the young girls and boys captive and planned to raise them as Indians. Regina and the other captives marched for hundreds of miles through briers and thorns that ripped their blouses and skirts. Their feet were bruised and scraped, and the skin sometimes rotted off the bottoms of their feet. In spite of her ordeal, 9-year-old Regina took a special interest in a younger girl among the captives named Willie May.** She carried her many times.

Eventually, each captive was given to an Indian family. Regina was separated from her sister and then she and her new little friend were given to a stern old woman. This woman’s son was lazy, so Regina learned to pick wild berries and hunt for rats and rabbits so that they could eat. As time went by, she soon learned the Indian language and lifestyle. Her life was one of poverty and hard work. To cheer her own heart, Regina would reminisce about happy times with her family when they used to sing hymns together. Willie May joined her as she lifted her voice in praise.

After nine long years the English made a surprise return and rescued Regina along with all the other captives of the Indians. They planned to reunite them with their families in just two weeks! The ominous thought began to haunt her…would her family recognize her? After all, she looked like an Indian now.…

At the appointed place, Mrs. Leininger waited in desperate anticipation, anxious to find her daughters. There were hundreds of released captives and all of them looked like Indians. Shouts of joy mingled with cries of despair as parents recognized their children, or the realization dawned that parents, too, were missing because they had been killed. Full of anguish and unable to see her lovely girls, Mrs. Leininger began to sob when suddenly someone suggested that she sing her daughters’ favorite songs.

As the strains of melody ascended, a small voice somewhere in the crowd began to sing along. Excitedly, mother and daughter kept singing until the long-awaited moment came when they met in the multitude. Something was wrong, however; Mrs. Leininger stared in utter unbelief. Regina did not in any way resemble the little girl she had lost more than nine years ago. “You still don’t believe me? I will sing you my other favorite hymn.” As Regina began that hymn, another voice started to sing with hers. It was not the voice of her sister to relieve Mrs. Leininger’s aching heart. It was Willie May’s. Her parents were not there. And so that day, even though Regina’s sister was missing, Mrs. Leininger still went home with two daughters.

May I digress from the science and the story to offer hope to those who have suffered loss? Singing hymns can help us survive the difficult times of life. I wonder, if in heaven someday with the vast throngs of millions, even billions of saved people and the heavenly angels, our singing will unite us with our long-departed loved ones. I wonder if each of us will have our own special song – like the special “nickname” that only God knows – that reflects the extent of our experience (Rev. 2:17).

*This story really happened, but is not intended as a political comment. Historically, Native Americans also have experienced cruelty, oppression, and unfairness.

**Willie May is the name I used to designate Regina’s unknown little friend.


© 2024, Wildwood Sanitarium. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: The information in this article is educational and general in nature. Neither Wildwood Lifestyle Center, its entities, nor author intend this article as a substitute for medical diagnosis, counsel, or treatment by a qualified health professional.


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