Music as a Tool in Daily Life

One of the first questions I ask new clients is, “how do you use music?”

Usually, people respond by saying they listen to music in the car, or perhaps they might use music during exercise or while cleaning. Many people use music as a sort of back drop or backing track, if you will, as they go about daily life. Some people use music consciously to change mood states, to increase motivation or to feel more relaxed.

Most people don’t think of music as a tool.

What could be easier in your daily life? Could you benefit from better sleep? Do you need a little extra “oomph” to get in the zone for a good run? Are you uncomfortable with or unable to express yourself verbally? Perhaps you or a loved one struggles with anxiety, and the term “relaxation exercise” or “meditation” sends you into a full-blown panic attack.

Sometimes, I see people choosing good music, with great intentions . . . but it’s not the right music. For example, a good running playlist should feature songs at the right tempo. Music for sleep should remain at a consistent volume, with little variation in tempo, unlike much symphonic music which features dynamic contrasts in tempo and loudness. Variations in music stimulate the mind and grab attention. Music can be used to regulate and modulate physical and emotional states.

Music affects people at a physiological level, reaches into the emotional part of the brain, and stimulates memories. The body naturally entrains with the rhythm in music (try listening to a piece of music while walking and NOT walking at that tempo!), and this includes your heart and respiration rates. As you breathe more deeply and your body relaxes, oxygen saturation increases and cortisol (a stress hormone) decreases. Listening to music can decrease the perception of pain. While exercising, perceived exertion decreases while listening to music. But the music must be up to the task and it must be central to the experience, and the listener engaged and present with the music.

Instead of using music as the background to your daily activities, try centering the music within the experience; focusing mindfully on the music gets the best results. Many people will benefit from multi-sensory engagement with the music, such as noticing where you feel the music in your body, or tapping along rhythmically.

Do you have a loved one who is unable to communicate their musical preferences? Sometimes, families may unknowingly choose music that is distressing or non-preferred for a loved one who is unable to express their discomfort, or unaware of the impact the music is having on their mood or mental state. It can be more difficult for trained musicians to use music to relax; musicians might be more critical of their self-expression, or their expectations might get in the way of their usage of music for a specific purpose. Music therapists are trained to assess musical preference and engage people of all ages and abilities in therapeutic musical experiences.

Almost without exception, all people are inherently musical. Music has been a part of the human experience, in every known culture, since the beginning, and is a part of the human experience beginning at 16 weeks gestation and often not ending until death. With few exceptions (namely amusia, the very rare inability to recognize or reproduce musical tones), nearly everyone can benefit from the intentional inclusion of music in daily life.

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