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Michael Abrahams | Music and the mind

Published:Sunday | March 26, 2017 | 12:00 AM

I absolutely love music. Growing up, it seemed like it was always being played in my home. My father had a formidable record collection, including many genres: calypso, jazz, classical, ska, rock steady, reggae, R&B, you name it. Then, when I attended Priory for my high school education, I not only got into disco and dancehall, which were being played with regularity on the radio, but also developed an affinity for rock, which was introduced to me by my North American and British schoolmates.

Listening to music makes me feel good, but I am also becoming more appreciative of how music can improve quality of life and health. This is not just theoretical. The effects of music on the brain have been subjected to much scrutiny and research in the field of neuroscience.

For example, research has shown that music can make employees happier and more productive at the workplace. One study found that office workers allowed to listen to their preferred choice of music complete tasks more quickly and come up with better ideas than those who have no control over their musical choices.

We feel good when we hear music that we like because the melodious sounds facilitate the release of dopamine, a mood-enhancing neurotransmitter, in the reward area of the brain. Dopamine is the chemical responsible for the feel-good states we experience while eating delicious food, smelling pleasant aromas, having orgasms and when we are in love or experiencing ‘runner’s high’.

Playing music with others or experiencing live music also stimulates the release of oxytocin, a hormone that helps us to bond with and trust others. In fact, research suggests that the oxytocin bump experienced by music lovers can make them more generous and trustworthy.

While elevating the levels of the abovementioned substances from our brains, listening to or playing music of our choice also reduces chronic stress by lowering the stress hormone cortisol. When chronically elevated, cortisol can have deleterious effects on the body, contributing to anxiety, depression, headaches, impairment of memory and concentration, digestive problems, reproductive issues, headaches, heart disease, sleep disorders and weight gain.

In addition to the alleviation of stress, music can also make you feel more hopeful, powerful, and in control of your life. Even listening to sad music can have benefits, as it can be cathartic and help you to get in touch with your emotions and heal while going through a tough time.

So, it is clear that playing and listening to music can affect our mood, but learning music has a significant list of other benefits as well. When children learn music, it helps them to excel by improving language development, IQ and test scores (especially in language, reading, math and science), and by increasing brain connectivity and spatial intelligence, which help them to understand how things work together. One study found that children who sing together on a choir report more satisfaction in all their classes at school.

Children with music training also have better fine motor skills than their non-musical peers, and it has also been found that early music lessons encourage brain plasticity; the brain’s capacity to change and grow. As little as four years of music lessons has been found to improve certain brain functions, even when tested 40 years later, and evidence suggests that when exposure to music training begins before at age seven, the brain enhancement that takes place can last a lifetime.

And the beneficial effects of music can be found at opposite ends of the age spectrum. Babies who have music lessons before they can walk or talk tend to communicate better, and for seniors, playing music has a protective effect against memory problems and cognitive decline.

With the benefits of music clearly demonstrated by objective research, it is therefore not surprising that music therapy has proven useful for treating people with anxiety, depression, emotional trauma, autism, Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia and chronic pain. Patients benefit from therapy by experiencing improved mood, concentration, and motivation, and decreased anxiety, anger, stress, and frustration.

I can confidently tell you that music continues to enhance my own life. I am not a morning person, and music helps to invigorate me and get me ready to start my day, as well as lift my mood as I work. But what is of even more importance to me are the effects that it has on my patients.

A visit to the gynaecologist is not on a woman’s list of most enjoyable experiences. However, I find that listening to music that they like can decrease anxiety and even lower their pain thresholds. It has now become standard practice to ask my patients about their musical preferences and play what they like during office visits, minor surgical procedures and during childbirth.

When possible, I also have them listen to music of their choice on the way to the operating theatre, and continue the party during major surgery.

My iPod has over 17, 000 songs from different genres, and I can usually find something that will satisfy them, and if I do not locate it on the device, there is always YouTube. Requests have ranged from Donnie McClurkin and Mozart to Aerosmith and Alkaline. One lady only allows me to perform her Pap smear if I play the song ‘Moves Like Jagger’. Sometimes I combine music with humour. One lady came for a Pap smear, and when she began to act up I played ‘This Is What You Came For’, and when another, who has been sexually active and has children, did the same, I played ‘Like A Virgin’. In both cases my DJ skills provoked laughter and eased tension.

So, I express gratitude for the presence of music in this world. If you have not already done so, it may be of benefit to you to investigate how music can be incorporated into your lifestyle.

- Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, comedian and poet. Email feedback to and, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.