The power of music: how it can benefit health

Written by supervisor on June 18, 2016

4We can all think of at least one song that, when we hear it, triggers an emotional response. It might be a song that accompanied the first dance at your wedding, for example, or a song that reminds you of a difficult break-up or the loss of a loved one.

“We have a such a deep connection to music because it is ‘hardwired’ in our brains and bodies,” Barbara Else, senior advisor of policy and research at the American Music Therapy Association told Medical News Today. “The elements of music – rhythm, melody, etc. – are echoed in our physiology, functioning and being.”

Given the deep connection we have with music, it is perhaps unsurprising that numerous studies have shown it can benefit our mental health. A 2011 study by researchers from McGill University in Canada found that listening to music increases the amount of dopamine produced in the brain – a mood-enhancing chemical, making it a feasible treatment for depression.

And earlier this year, MNT reported on a study published in The Lancet Psychiatry that suggested listening to hip-hop music – particularly that from Kendrick Lamar – may help individuals to understand mental health disorders.

But increasingly, researchers are finding that the health benefits of music may go beyond mental health, and as a result, some health experts are calling for music therapy to be more widely incorporated into health care settings.

In this Spotlight, we take a closer look at some of the potential health benefits of music and look at whether, for some conditions, music could be used to improve – or even replace – current treatment strategies.

Reducing pain and anxiety
Bob Marley once sang: “One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain.” According to some studies, this statement may ring true.

Earlier this year, MNT reported on a study led by Brunel University in the UK that suggested music may reduce pain and anxiety for patients who have undergone surgery.

By analyzing 72 randomized controlled trials involving more than 7,000 patients who received surgery, researchers found those who were played music after their procedure reported feeling less pain and anxiety than those who did not listen to music, and they were also less likely to need pain medication.

This effect was even stronger for patients who got to choose the music they listened to. Talking to MNT, study leader Dr. Catharine Meads said:

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Rhythm in Your Blood: Meet the Young Artists Keeping Cuba’s Traditional Music Alive

Written by supervisor on June 5, 2016

10It’s only 7 p.m. on a Friday night in Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second largest city, and the crowd is already up and moving like they’re several bottles of rum deep. We’re watching Cuban-born MC/producer Kumar Sublevao-Beat gyrate around the stage during his set at Manana, Cuba’s first-ever festival combining traditional Cuban sounds and international electronic music. Propelled by his band’s live mixture of jazz, funk, and Afro-Cuban elements, Kumar’s movements cause his ass-length dreads to fling to and fro against his bare torso. In between fancy footwork, he bridges past and present while triggering samples on an MPC. “Solo quiero conectarme a la Wi-Fi/Dame la contraseña,” he sings. Translation: “I only want to connect to the Wi-Fi/Give me the password.” In a country where internet access is extremely limited, the young Cubans in the crowd laugh, zealously picking up the phrase to sing along. After Kumar’s performance, I ask a couple of them why they liked it so much. “His music feels truly Cuban,” one explains with a smile.

Cuba’s eclectic history patches together Spanish, African, and Caribbean influences, which color the music that seeps out of the country’s pores. It’s homemade and from the streets, with rhythms that stir you to move almost without thinking. It’s completely interconnected with the nation’s distinctive cultural identity. But in the frame of current popular music in Cuba, such homegrown sounds are often considered to be endangered relics compared to the dominant presence of non-native styles like reggaeton, which can be heard floating from passing cars and open windows almost everywhere. Young people view traditional music with an air of dismissal. “It’s like something expired to them,” one Cuban tells me. And yet, as the government begins to grant citizens greater access to the outside world, some of them, like Kumar, are safeguarding their cultural heritage by transposing traditional music to strike a key with contemporary audiences within and beyond the island’s shores.

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Also sprach Zarathustra

Written by supervisor on May 21, 2016

9Sally Beamish, The Imagined Sound of Sun on Stone

Beamish’s 1999 saxophone concerto with chamber orchestra adopts a very primitive sound. A fanfare-like opening that mimics a herding call throws us into an intensely mystical soundscape. She pushes the saxophone to its limit, exploring all aspects of timbres and techniques, and the overall effect succeeds in being virtuosic in style, yet simultaneously supremely controlled.

Edvard Grieg, Peer Gynt Op. 23 ‘Morning Mood’

Written as incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s play of the same name, this section of Peer Gynt depicts the rising of the sun at the point in which the hero finds himself stranded in the desert. In the Hall of the Mountain King also comes from this suite, but this particular section will be equally familiar for many listeners. The lyrical alternating flute and oboe melodies slowly unfold to the magnificent climax at the point in which the sun reaches the sky.

Strauss, Also sprach Zarathustra Op.30: Prelude (Sunrise)

Another sun inspired piece by Strauss (he’s clearly a fan), the opening to this piece is more commonly known for being the theme to Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The prelude is known as ‘Sunrise’, beginning in the depths of the orchestra, slowly building with the majestic ‘dawn’ motif of three intervals, which are developed slowly but surely towards the climax of sunrise. It is a piece so majestic in fact, that the legendary Elvis Presley used it to open his concerts (below).

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Nostalgia on Repeat

Written by supervisor on May 17, 2016

3Certain problems never disappear. Sometimes that’s because there’s no solution to whatever the problem
is. But just as often, it’s because the problem isn’t problematic; the so­called “problem” is just an inexact,
unresolved phenomenon two reasonable people can consistently disagree over. The “nostalgia problem”
fits in this class: Every so often (like right now), people interested in culture become semifixated on a soft
debate over the merits or dangers of nostalgia (as it applies to art, and particularly to pop music). The
dispute resurfaces every time a new generation attains a social position that’s both dominant and
insecure; I suppose if this ever stopped, we’d be nostalgic for the time when it still periodically mattered
to people.
The highest­profile current example is the book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past,
written by the British writer Simon Reynolds (almost certainly the smartest guy to ever earnestly think
about Death in Vegas for more than 4½ minutes). Promoting his book on Slate, Reynolds casually
mentioned two oral histories he saw as connected to the phenomenon (the grunge overview Everybody
Loves Our Town and the ’80s­heavy I Want My MTV). Those passing mentions prompted writers from
both books to politely reject the idea that these works were somehow reliant on the experience of
nostalgia (nostalgia has a mostly negative literary connotation). But this is not the only example: The
music writer for New York magazine wrote about this subject apolitically for Pitchfork, essentially noting
the same thing I just reiterated — for whatever reason,
this (semi­real) “nostalgia problem” suddenly
appears to be something writers are collectively worried about at this (semi­random) moment. The net
result is a bunch of people defending and bemoaning the impact of nostalgia in unpredictable ways; I
suppose a few of these arguments intrigue me, but just barely. I’m much more interested in why people
feel nostalgia, particularly when that feeling derives from things that don’t actually intersect with any
personal experience they supposedly had. I don’t care if nostalgia is good or bad, because I don’t believe
either of those words really applies.
1. In fact, the day after Ifinished this essay, I saw this.
But still — before a problem can be discarded, one needs to identify what that problem is. In my view,
this dispute has three principal elements. None of them are new. The central reason most smart people
(and certainly most critics) tend to disparage nostalgia is obvious: It’s an uncritical form of artistic
appreciation. If you unconditionally love something from your own past, it might just mean you love that
period of your own life. In other words, you’re not really hearing “Baby Got Back.” What you’re hearing is
a song that reminds you of a time when you were happy, and you’ve unconsciously conflated that positive
memory with any music connected to the recollection. You can’t separate the merit of a song from the
time when you originally experienced it. [The counter to this argument would be that this seamless
integration is arguably the most transcendent thing any piece of art can accomplish.] A secondary
criticism boils down to self­serving insecurity; when we appreciate things from our past, we’re latently
arguing that those things are still important — and if those things are important, we can pretend our own
life is equally important, because those are the things that comprise our past

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Nine of the best… classical works inspired by the sun

Written by supervisor on April 28, 2016

8Today marks the Summer Solstice – the longest day of daylight and the official beginning of summer. So as we all inevitably lick our ice creams inside by the fire rather than brace the harsh realities of a disappointing English summer, we can cross our fingers optimistically for sunnier days to come.

Whether the sun arrives or not, we may as well turn our attention to composers who have been more fortunate. We have compiled a list of works that worship the sun in all its (occasional) glory.

Richard Strauss, Alpine Symphony Op. 64

Musically recreating a sunny day’s mountain climb in the Bavarian Alps, Strauss’s 1915 symphony is a continual episodic flow of music. The sun emerges at the beginning of the piece, presented by a brash brass entrance. By using one of the largest orchestras ever assembled at that time with a particularly strong brass section, the effect is overwhelming. The symphony closes with the sun setting at the base of the mountain, with the piece’s narrative wholly dictated by daylight.

Haydn, String Quartets Op. 20 ‘Sun’

This third set of quartets, entitled the ‘Sun quartets’, written in 1772, gave Haydn his reputation as a highly respected figure in the composition of string quartets, inspiring Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, as well as inevitably many more. Truthfully told, the only reason these quartets became known as the ‘Sun’ quartets was because the cover of the first printed edition featured an illustration of a rising sun, but we thought they were lovely enough to include anyway! Musicologist Donald Tovey also referred to the set as a ‘sunrise over the domain of sonata style and quartets in particular,’ emphasising its influence within its field and the piece’s sunny dispositions.

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What Does a Conductor Do?

Written by supervisor on April 11, 2016

2standing on a podium, with an enameled wand cocked between my fingers and sweat dampening the small of my back. Ranks of young musicians eye me skeptically. They know I don’t belong here, but they’re waiting for me to pretend I do. I raise my arm in the oppressive silence and let it drop. Miraculously, Mozart’s overture to Don Giovanni explodes in front of me, ragged but recognizable, violently thrilling. This feels like an anxiety dream, but it’s actually an attempt to answer a question that the great conductor Riccardo Muti asked on receiving an award last year: “What is it, really, I do?”

I have been wondering what, exactly, a conductor does since around 1980, when I led a JVC boom box in a phenomenal performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in my bedroom. I was bewitched by the music—the poignant plod of the second movement, the crazed gallop of the fourth—and fascinated by the sorcery. In college, I took a conducting course, presided over a few performances of my own compositions, and led the pit orchestra for a modern-dance program. Those crumbs of experience left me in awe of the constellation of skills and talents required of a conductor—and also made me somewhat skeptical that waving a stick creates a coherent interpretation.

Ever since big ensembles became the basis of orchestral music, about 200 years ago, doubt has dogged the guy on the podium. Audiences wonder whether he (or, increasingly, she) has any effect; players are sure they could do better; and even conductors occasionally feel superfluous. “I’m in a bastard profession, a dishonest profession,” agonized Dimitri Mitropoulos, who led the New York Philharmonic in the fifties. “The others make all the music, and I get the salary and the credit.” Call it the Maestro Paradox: The person responsible for the totality of sound produces none.

My guides through this mystery are Alan Gilbert, the music director of the New York Philharmonic, and James Ross, who with Gilbert runs the Juilliard School’s conducting program. I’ll be leading a student orchestra in a half-hour rehearsal of Mozart’s six-minute overture to Don Giovanni. Throughout the fall, I drop in on Gilbert and Ross’s course, in which four students take private lessons and meet for seminars, attend Philharmonic rehearsals, and conduct the school’s lab orchestra in weekly two-and-a-half-hour sessions.

Pianists can work through their failures in solitude; conductors live each one in public. As the students take turns on the podium, Gilbert prowls the room, giving cues from the sidelines—“You’re not showing that pizzicato!”—or sneaking up and grabbing a proto-maestro’s wrist. Ross stays behind the violins and lobs little flares of wisdom: “A lot of great conductors are shy, even though you wouldn’t know that from how they handle large groups of people. That shyness can actually help in intimate music. You have to let people see what’s inside you, even if you don’t do that in the rest of your life.”

I’m not a naturally demonstrative person, so I find this idea both consoling and counterintuitive. Not only am I letting the musicians in on my own inner life, I’m also asking them to express it for me. The idea of conducting as a kind of emotional ventriloquism helps deal with one especially thorny bit of the Maestro Paradox: Leadership requires confidence that is difficult to acquire and impossible to fake. Orchestras are psychic X-ray machines. They judge a new chief within minutes, and once scorn sets in, forget it. I’m going to have to project the sense that I am entitled to be there, and first, I must convince myself.

“Knowing the score”—the expression implies mastery, but it doesn’t suggest the sustained and solitary study that’s required to achieve it. There are a few miles of roadway that I have driven often enough to navigate them faultlessly in my mind: I know every pothole, every deer crossing. A conductor needs similarly detailed recall of an enormous musical terrain. In the weeks I spend fussing over just my six minutes of Mozart, Gilbert conducts Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande; symphonies by Mahler, Brahms, Dvorák, and Beethoven; and assorted pieces by Webern, Bruch, Berg, Bach, Corigliano, Dutilleux, Haydn, Sibelius, Wagner, Janácek, and Mozart—dozens of hours, millions of notes, pieces he has performed for years and pieces he’s never seen before. During one session, Gilbert demonstrates for a percussionist how to get the right sound on the triangle, corrects a bowing in the violin part, sings the bassoon line, and points out a subtle harmonic shift—all without glancing at the score. “I haven’t looked at this piece in five years,” he says, “but it’s still in there somewhere.” If the entire symphonic tradition were incinerated, a team of conductors could write it all out again.

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Music scholars often bash Henry’s compositions

Written by supervisor on March 20, 2016

7From England itself, however, few tributes to Henry have come down to us. There is the Mass ‘God Save King Henry’ by Thomas Ashwell, of which only two of five parts survive. Earlier still is Robert Fayrfax’s setting of Lauda vivi alpha et oo (Praise, most exalted daughter of the living Alpha and Omega), a devotion to the Virgin Mary with an embedded prayer to the king, probably composed soon after Henry came to the throne in 1509. And then there is John Taverner’s O Christe Jesu, pastor bone (O Jesus Christ, good shepherd), which began life with a prayer to Henry’s chief minister, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, but was then adapted in praise of the king when the cardinal fell in 1530. Typical of the great pre-Reformation votive antiphon in its vast musical architecture, it was to be the great musical art forms such as this, forged from a long tradition, that would be swept away by Henry’s reforms.

But what of Henry’s own music-making? It is well known that he was a competent player of a variety of keyboard, string, and wind instruments and there is even an image of him playing his harp in the so-called Henry VIII Psalter. According to Sir Peter Carew, a Gentleman of Henry’s Privy Chamber, the king was also ‘much delighted to sing’. We learn, too, from the chronicler Edward Halle that Henry was an accomplished composer, having set at least two masses in five parts which ‘were song oftentimes in hys chapel, and afterwardes in diverse other places’. The main testament to his compositional skill, however, is the so-called Henry VIII Manuscript, which contains 109 songs and instrumental pieces by composers attached to the court as well as some by foreign musicians. No fewer than 33 of the compositions, nearly a third of the entire collection, are ascribed to ‘the kyng h.viii’.

Music scholars often bash Henry’s compositions. True, several are weak: open chords, parallel fifths and other schoolboy errors abound. But all of his surviving works would have been composed when he was in his early twenties, teens or even earlier. If only those five-part Mass settings had survived, we would then have some measure of Henry as a serious composer. One can imagine that he gained advice from composers and musicians attached to his chapel and court, but these early errors seem to show that much of what survives is the king’s own. Of the 13 untexted works, Tandernaken is arguably his most accomplished, but there are other gems.
Most famous in the collection, Pastyme with good companye is similar to Though some saith in which he proclaims ‘I hurt no man, I do no wrong; I love true where I did marry.’ Other compositions, such as Adieu madame and O my heart, seem, meanwhile, to have been conjured from the depths of Henry’s emotions and vividly reveal a young king in love. Now this is good stuff. In celebration of 500 years since Henry came to the throne, perhaps it is time to give his musical side another chance, remembering that without Henry’s actions (good or bad) England’s musical heritage would most likely be different to that which we enjoy today.

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Pieces of VIII

Written by supervisor on February 28, 2016

6Let’s clear one thing up first of all: Henry VIII did not compose ‘Greensleeves’. Italian in form with an Elizabethan text, this is one piece that must be struck from the list of works by this most musical of monarchs. He certainly composed, however, and many believe he composed well. Though not a requirement of any intended heir to the throne, music for a number of reasons came naturally to Henry and he remained a fanatical musician throughout his reign. This, at least, is one aspect of this king’s colourful and changing character that remained consistent.

Fired by his desire to secure the Tudor dynasty, Henry’s religious reforms of the 1530s and 1540s – a political revolution initially set up to secure his divorce with Catherine of Aragon – were to change the face of the English church forever, severing centuries of unbroken musical and religious traditions. Indeed the break with the Catholic Church and closure of hundreds of monastic and collegiate houses sent a great number of musicians to wretched poverty and composers into confusion. Nevertheless, we can credit Henry in his later years with one last positive gesture towards England’s musical heritage: he would go on to found or re-found two of England’s greatest musical institutions that still exist today – Christ Church, Oxford, and Trinity College, Cambridge – as well as finishing King’s College Chapel, that grand project started in 1441 by the teenage Henry VI. And without Henry’s reforms and the mid-16th-century reformations that followed, England would never have reached its musical renaissance as so exquisitely captured in the music of Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. So in the end, despite his reforms, Henry remained music’s champion.

It was on 24 June 1509 that Henry was crowned king of England, just shy of his 18th birthday. His early reign was seen as a new Golden Age, full of opulence, splendour, majesty and concord. But Henry, of course, was not originally destined to be king. As the second son of Henry VII he was raised in the manner of any European prince and received a sound education, with original hopes, it seems, for high places in the Church. Henry excelled at languages, literature, theology, sport and, famously, music. Little is known of his early musical tuition, but it’s likely that he would have benefited from contact with musicians attached to his father’s court, such as William Cornysh and William Newarke. His musically formative years doubtlessly took place while a boy at Eltham Palace, where he must have had exposure to many musical instruments; one can imagine him singing songs of youth, hunting and love, the things he excelled at so well as a young man. The untimely death in 1502 of his older brother Arthur, however, thrust the young Duke of York into the limelight. When Henry VIII came to the throne, he cut a very different figure to that most famously depicted by Hans Holbein in 1537.

During his early years the court abounded with cultural activity – indeed, the number of full-time musicians employed in his household increased from around a half dozen to 58. He also kept his own private household chapel choir in addition to his Chapel Royal, containing the finest musicians in the land, which was a regular part of his retinue.

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Pearls Before Breakfast

Written by supervisor on January 29, 2016

1HE EMERGED FROM THE METRO AT THE L’ENFANT PLAZA STATION AND POSITIONED HIMSELF AGAINST A WALL BESIDE A TRASH BASKET. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.

It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L’Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant.

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment?

On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?

The musician did not play popular tunes whose familiarity alone might have drawn interest. That was not the test. These were masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls.

The acoustics proved surprisingly kind. Though the arcade is of utilitarian design, a buffer between the Metro escalator and the outdoors, it somehow caught the sound and bounced it back round and resonant. The violin is an instrument that is said to be much like the human voice, and in this musician’s masterly hands, it sobbed and laughed and sang — ecstatic, sorrowful, importuning, adoring, flirtatious, castigating, playful, romancing, merry, triumphal, sumptuous.

So, what do you think happened?


Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, was asked the same question. What did he think would occur, hypothetically, if one of the world’s great violinists had performed incognito before a traveling rush-hour audience of 1,000-odd people?

“Let’s assume,” Slatkin said, “that he is not recognized and just taken for granted as a street musician . . . Still, I don’t think that if he’s really good, he’s going to go unnoticed. He’d get a larger audience in Europe . . . but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening.”

So, a crowd would gather?

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An effective stress reliever

Written by supervisor on January 8, 2016

5When feeling stressed, you may find listening to your favorite music makes you feel better – and there are numerous studies that support this effect.

A study reported by MNT last month, for example, found that infants remained calmer for longer when they were played music rather than spoken to – even when speech involved baby talk.

The study researchers, including Prof. Isabelle Peretz of the Center for Research on Brain, Music and Language at the University of Montreal in Canada, suggested the repetitive pattern of the music the infants listened to reduced distress, possibly by promoting “entrainment” – the ability of the body’s internal rhythms to synchronize with external rhythms, pulses or beats.

Another study conducted in 2013 found that not only did listening to music help reduce pain and anxiety for children at the UK’s Great Ormond Street Hospital, it helped reduce stress – independent of social factors.

According to some researchers, music may help alleviate stress by lowering the body’s cortisol levels – the hormone released in response to stress.

The review by Dr. Levitin and colleagues, however, suggests this stress-relieving effect is dependent on what type of music one listens to, with relaxing music found most likely to lower cortisol levels.

Another mechanism by which music may alleviate stress is the effect it has on brainstem-mediated measures, according to Dr. Levitin and colleagues, such as pulse, heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature; again, the effect is dependent on the type of music listened to.

“Stimulating music produces increases in cardiovascular measures, whereas relaxing music produces decreases,” they explain. “[…] These effects are largely mediated by tempo: slow music and musical pauses are associated with a decrease in heart rate, respiration and blood pressure, and faster music with increases in these parameters.”

Music’s effect on heart rate and its potential as a stress reliever has led a number of researchers to believe music may also be effective for treating heart conditions.

Earlier this year, MNT reported on a study presented at the British Cardiology Society Conference in Manchester, UK, in which researchers from the UK’s University of Oxford found repeated musical phrases may help control heart rate and reduce blood pressure – though they noted more research is required in this area.

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