What are the benefits of music therapy, and why does listening to music calm us down?

The music industry is currently undergoing a revolution due to the dawning of the internet age.

The music industry is undergoing a revolution. Today, more than ever, music is available with the touch of a button as we download it from iTunes, listen to it on our iPods, and watch it on YouTube. What does the future hold, without CDs and music tapes, and what does the latest music therapy research say about its positive uses?

Dr. Daniel Levitin is a professor of psychology, behavioral neuroscience, and music at McGill University in Montreal.  He is the author of two bestselling books called, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession and The World In Six Songs: How The Musical Brain Created Human Nature.

I recently interviewed Dr. Levitin on the Goldstein on Gelt show. Read the transcript below to find out what he has to say about the development of the music industry and its place in our lives. To watch a video of this interview, scroll further down the page.

Douglas Goldstein:    A lot of what you’ve written has been about not music per se, but about how music affects people.  Could you talk about how you discovered that?

Daniel J. Levitin:       It goes back to when I was an engineer and a producer in California in the 1980s.  I was working in a recording studio, and there was one particular day when Carlo Santana was playing a guitar solo and I started to get goose bumps.  I don’t mean to imply that that’s the only day I got goose bumps listening to him play. That happens all the time, but on this one particular day, it just occurred to me to ask the question, “Why is this happening?  Why am I having such a physical, bodily reaction to somebody banging on guitar strings?”  I began to take classes in neuroscience to understand the brain and the body’s reactions to external stimuli, and one thing led to another, and I now run a laboratory, and basically what we do is try to understand the emotional and cognitive reactions to music.   

We play music that a lot of people have already listened to and would consider as happy music, sad music, or scary music, and we look at physical reactions in the body and brain reactions using brain scanning technology, and of course we just ask people what they’re feeling - a tried and true psychological method.

Douglas Goldstein:    Does it cut across different cultures?

Daniel J. Levitin:       In North America of course, music is somewhat homogenous in the Western tradition.  In Israel, you have the benefit of Western music, but also Middle Eastern music.  Someone raised here who’s been pretty insulated and only heard Western music, whether it’s classical, pop, or jazz tends to think that major chords are happy and minor chords are sad.  I always have to point out that if you listen to Middle Eastern music or Klezmer music, it’s almost all in minor keys, but it isn’t all sad, so this major-minor distinction is entirely cultural and entirely learned. 

Douglas Goldstein:    We have a lot of guests from other countries, including some of those from the lost tribes of Jews that settled in China a couple of thousand years ago.  They now live in the city of Kaifeng.  One of the interesting things is that when we sing around the Shabbat table, they’re the most out of key of anyone.  They don’t hear the melodies that we are singing, they hear other melodies.

Daniel J. Levitin:       There is a different scale system in Chinese music, so what’s out of key for them and what’s out of key for us are different things and also is culturally determined.  It’s interesting to compare our auditory sense with our visual sense for this purpose.  When we look at a rainbow, there is less of a physiological problem.  We see the same colors.  We see red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet and we can look at pantone chips or other color samples and this is more or less determined by the physiology and the chemical sense of the eye. 

This is cross culture, that’s what I mean about color.  There’s no cross cultural universality for pitches of the infinity of tones that are available to use.  Different cultures have selected a subset that they call their scale, and the auditory system isn’t chemically based.  It’s based on vibrations, which are continuous in nature and not discrete.  As a result of all that, people can choose any pitches they want and make their own scale.  There’s no biological imperative to choose a particular one.

Douglas Goldstein:    Therefore, someone who grew up in China with Chinese music might not find Klezmer music happy?

 Daniel J. Levitin:       They might not find it interpretable either.  They might not know what the heck is going on.  The other interesting thing is that in spite of the fact that all of these different cultures choose their own pitches, there are still cultural universals such as the octave.  Virtually every musical system that we’ve looked at, thousands of them, all have the octave and they all have the perfect fit, but how they divide up the scale after that is culturally specific.


Douglas Goldstein:    Does music help people to relax, and can it help them to become stronger to regenerate themselves?

Daniel J. Levitin:       What we find is that many people use music for mood regulation and self-regulation.  It’s not that different from the way we use certain drugs.  We use caffeine to get going.  We use alcohol to relax, and people use music in the same way.  There’s a certain kind of music that people know will help get them to an exercise workout, and that’s not the same kind of music they would use to calm themselves down.  There is no one piece of music that everybody finds suitable for any of these activities.  It’s a very personal choice.  There’s probably a music that you know you want to reach for when you’ve had a bad day and you just need to feel centered again.

 How does this work?  One of the things going on is that our neurons and nerve cells in our brain fire synchronicity that is in time with the beat of the music.  You can see that something of a high tempo arousing music like a march that could get your neurons firing a little bit faster than they already are is going to get your whole body going, and that’s going to help you with the marathon, with a sprint, or just to get out of bed.  Music that’s soothing tends to have a slower tempo.  Now, there’s more to it than just tempo and synchronized neuron-firing, but that’s a part of it. 

The other big part of it is that music is somehow uniquely able to access the emotional centers of our brain and this causes a release of certain neurochemicals.  We’ve now seen a great deal of evidence that when people listen to music they like, regardless of whether it’s faster, slower, happy, or sad - just music they like but they find pleasurable - dopamine is released.  This is the so-called “feel-good hormone,” and it washes over the brain and it allows people to feel a sense of pleasure and happiness.  

Douglas Goldstein:    Would you suggest that people keep music that they like on in the background throughout the day?

Daniel J. Levitin:       It’s not as clear that the benefits come from music when it’s in the background.  What we’ve seen is that it comes from focus listening.  I’m not aware of any studies that show that background music has the same effect.  I’m not saying it doesn’t.  I just don’t know about any studies that show it.

Douglas Goldstein:    Are there practical implications that you can derive from this?

Daniel J. Levitin:       Right now, we’re at the early stages of the research.  One practical thing might be music therapy.  We’re beginning to see that music that’s pleasurable to the listener and is chosen by the listener and not imposed on the listener can affect things like pain threshold and recovery times in the operating room and really can help with overall mood. music(97714)Credit: xedos4 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net People listening to music report that they’ve obtained more stable moods.

Douglas Goldstein:    Could you talk about how the music industry has changed and where it’s heading?

Daniel J. Levitin:       When I was in the music industry, there were 16 to 20 major record labels in Europe and North America, and now there are three.  All of them are struggling and have been for many years.  I think one of the biggest shifts is that virtually every recording ever made is available on the internet somewhere, and it’s there for free if you’ll just look hard enough.  I’m not just talking about records by Michael Jackson, Adele, Lady Gaga or the Rolling Stones.  I’m talking about field recordings from Kazakhstan, or the Euro Mountains, or the music of the Cameroon Pygmies. All of the stuff is there.  If it’s there for free, the problem is it’s not being monetized and the hundred- year history we have of an industry built around nurturing, supporting and promoting artists is crumbling. 

 On the one hand, this is a golden age for music.  There are more people making music and distributing it and listening to it than ever before.  The average 14-year-old today is going to hear more songs or at least going to have more songs on a handheld device than our great-grandfather would’ve heard in his lifetime.  I say it’s a golden age where the unique nexus in history where listeners can really find the music that they like.  They don’t have to settle for music that’s just okay.  They can find exactly the music they like. 

There can be a band that’s making music that only 10,000 people in the world like, but it could be the favorite music of those 10,000 people and that band and those listeners can get together and have this mutually supportive relationship that can be wonderful whereas 20 years ago, that would’ve been impossible, impossible to find the record and impossible for the record to be distributed and so on.

The struggle that the industry is facing as I alluded to is how to monetize all this.  I think the first hurdle we face is that there’s now an entire generation of listeners, virtually everyone under the age of 25 who’s only known the internet, and they’ve only known a model where music was free and they don’t think they ought to pay for it.  They don’t see any reason why they should.

Douglas Goldstein:    Isn’t that the same way that we listened to radio when we were growing up?  You turned on the radio, you listened, and you never paid for it.

Daniel J. Levitin:       That’s right, or you do now.  You pay for it on your car at least in the states.  There are precedents for shifting to a paid model when something was free.  We saw this in television.  It used to be a thick aerial on top of your house.  Now, most people in the West pay for television through cable.  We pay for water.  Water used to be free, but bottled water is a billion dollar industry.  If we want people to pay for music, we have to give them something a value and I think what that’s going to be is two-fold.

First, it’s becoming more and more difficult to find the music you want because there’s so much out there, but second it’s becoming more and more difficult once you’ve built up a library of your own music.  It becomes difficult to decide what to play.  Most people don’t bother anymore.  They just stick their device into shuffle mode because it’s too much trouble to try and figure out what do I feel like hearing.  I’ve got 20,000 songs, so where do I begin to try and dial and turn this and select that?  Nobody goes to that trouble.

 The future for music is that either some software or DJs are going to rise in importance and they’ll provide us a playlist of music that we like that’s keyed to the time of day that we’re listening to it, wakeup music versus work music versus relaxing music.  We might pay $5 a month for something like that in order to have to [re-link] with a little bit of control and get a better playlist than we can get in random mode.

Democratization, I think is important.  The barriers to entry 20 years ago were huge.  You had to have access to a million-dollar recording studio.  You had to have access to at least a six-figure promotional budget.  You had to make a video for MTV.  Now anybody with a laptop can make an album that sounds as good as the Beggars Banquet by the Stones and they can put it on the internet for free.  The electrons move around for free, so it’s a green technology.  It’s a great democratizing force.

 Speaking of those internet electros moving around, I think another alternative model for monetizing music is when all the ISPs are tracking traffic.  They know when a music file is being sent from one internet user to another, and they even know what it is because the file contains tags.  They’ve been very reluctant to share this information with the government, but it would be a relatively simple matter to just decide as a society.  We think that the job of artist should be an actual job classification and people who are artists deserve to earn a living from being artists.  As we want to compensate them in proportion to how much their work is appreciated, we would impose some kind of tax, the proceeds of which would be collected by the internet service providers and then distributed proportionally to artists and maybe charge a tenth of a cent per song.  It doesn’t have to be a lot of money because the number of downloads is so huge.  I calculated five years ago that if you were to tax the exchange of MP3 files on the internet only a tenth of a cent, the artist would be earning as much as they earn currently on sales of CDs and records and other artifacts.

Douglas Goldstein:    How can people following the work that you’re doing?

Daniel J. Levitin:       People can go to my website, which is www.daniellevitin.com and we’ve got a Facebook and Twitter community there.  You can follow me at Twitter on @danlevitin.  The website has also all of the research articles for my lab and a number of videos.



Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for investment advice that takes into account each individual’s special position and needs. Past performance is no guarantee of future returns.