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Music Making: Practical Piano Tuning Insights

By: Barry Bittman, MD
Category: Wellness
Population Served: Others

You read it right!

This column isn't about piano tuning. Our focus today is on tuning the most important instrument we will ever play&our mind.

With this in mind (pardon the pun) it's fascinating to explore the basis for music's effects. Let's begin by examining some of the historical pioneering work in this field. In 1985 Gordon Shaw, Dennis Silverman and John Pearson proposed a model of nerve cell firing patterns in the brain specifically thought to be influenced by music and other creative skills. Research later published in the journal, Concepts in Neuroscience (1991), by Xiaodan Leng and Gordon Shaw proposed the concept of music as a "pre- language," and suggested early music training might be useful in exercising the brain for certain higher cognitive functions.

Building upon this concept, additional studies furthered our understanding of the effects of music training on brain function. Researchers Frances Rauscher, Gordon Shaw and others conducted and published a number of scientific studies documenting improvements in spatial-temporal reasoning skills associated with music listening and keyboard training in pre-school and kindergarten students. Their early work utilizing Mozart sonatas suggested that music with a certain structure or complexity was more likely to be associated with spatial-temporal reasoning skills improvements. In recent years, they've shown that standardized math scores can be improved in 2nd graders through a 3-component program including a specific keyboard training method.

Since this concept may be new to you, let's take a few moments to better understand spatial-temporal reasoning. Basically it allows us to maintain, transform and compare mental images in space and time. Especially suited for creating a visual picture of what's actually happening, this form of reasoning enables us to better understand mathematical and scientific principles needed to solve complex problems. Einstein utilized this approach extensively.

In addition to boosting problem solving abilities, music-making has also been shown to affect our biology through what is termed the mind-body connection. While many tend to believe our minds reside within our brains, leading scientists throughout the world agree the mind exists throughout the body and includes nervous, endocrine and immune system components. It is now well-established that over 100 chemicals or neurotransmitters (signaling substances) previously thought to exist specifically within the central nervous system are actually produced by circulating white blood cells.

In 1999, a research group led by Dr. Frederick Tims, Chair of Music Therapy at Michigan State University, found that group keyboard lessons given to older Americans reduced stress, loneliness and anxiety. Levels of human growth hormone were also boosted-- an important finding considering this substance's implication in aspects of the aging phenomena which includes osteoporosis, energy levels, wrinkling, sexual function, muscle mass, and aches and pains.

A recent research study published in the January 2001 edition of Alternative Therapies demonstrates an important first step in understanding potential biological benefits of group drumming music therapy for reversing specific immune system effects of the classical stress response.

The team I led at the Mind-Body Wellness Center with Loma Linda University Medical Center researchers, Lee Berk, DrPH, David Felten, MD, PhD and others scientifically determined the following: a single group drumming session conducted in a light-hearted manner fostering self-expression and camaraderie can boost the activity of Natural Killer (NK) cells that seek out and destroy cancer cells and virally-infected cells.

Using carefully screened normal subjects (111 male and female volunteers) our research team analyzed blood samples drawn prior to and after several group drumming sessions. Comparing a variety of drumming strategies, we also included listening controls (subjects who listened to drumming music performed by another group) and resting controls (subjects who read newspapers and magazines) in order to eliminate other potential factors that could have affected our results.

Our initial findings represent a crucial first step for better understanding how this form of music-making impacts an important immune system component. While we're pleased with the preliminary results from multiple perspectives, we are not suggesting that drumming is a cure for cancer or any other disease.

Further research is needed to better understand the real life impact and duration of these immunological changes. Additional studies are required to establish the scientific basis for including group drumming as a complementary strategy that can be used along with conventional techniques to help people meet the challenges of many ongoing illnesses.

While the scientific foundations of music and the mind are in their infancy, prospects for utilizing music to improve the human condition seem extremely promising. There's much we need to learn in order to better incorporate music-making into our daily lives. I'm personally convinced that enhancing learning, reversing the effects of stress in our lives and boosting immunity is only the beginning.

There's no better time than the present to introduce or reacquaint yourself and your family with the joy of music-making. After all, our grandparents didn't need science to know music is simply good for you-- Mind Over Matter!

Copyright 1998,1999, 2000 Barry Bittman, MD all rights reserved.

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