Playlists of favourite music and the hormone oxytocin featured in a Catalyst* program broadcast last week on ABC TV. In the program, men and women with brain damage were transformed as they listened to music. People with brain damage are not the only ones affected in this way. Music, it seems, boosts oxytocin whenever we listen to music we like.
The program showed men and women affected by dementia. When they heard playlists created especially for them, they remembered. They laughed. They cried. They swayed in time to the music. They clapped. Family members and onlookers were moved to tears.
The music finished. One woman with severe dementia spoke coherently about the memories evoked by the music. She talked about feeling happy as she listened.
People suffering from Parkinson’s disease were shown tottering erratically, their balance affected. But, as soon as the music started, they walked normally. Then they danced with the therapist. The sound of music liberated some part of their brains that had kept them frozen.
By the end of the program I, too, was weeping. What I’d seen and heard made sense at a profound visceral level.
This powerful episode of Catalyst showed some of the ways music affects people. Emotion and memory are connected in the brain. Music arouses both. Indeed, it was suggested that perhaps music, rather than language, may be what makes us human.
Simple saliva tests reveal that music increases oxytocin, the bonding hormone.
Science has shown that intimacy such as hugging, kissing and hand-holding boosts oxytocin. And so, of course, does sexual activity. Oxytocin is sometimes called the ‘love-hormone’.
Now, according to this Catalyst program, it appears that singing, especially with other people, boosts the hormone even more than physical contact. Perhaps that explains why singing in church feels so good.
This hormone plays an important role in women during labour. It is also responsible for the ‘let-down’ of breast milk and increases bonding between mother and child.
People, especially parents, tend to croon when interacting with infants. Babies respond to the intonation and rhythms of speech from their earliest days. Older babies and children are programmed to sing and move to music.
It appears our need for music is innate. Music is not an optional extra in our lives. It is essential for our health and well-being. No wonder I’ve had such trouble forgiving the nun who told me my voice was like that of an old crow when I was in Year Six. She banished me to the back of the choir, and told me to mime the words.
In the Catalyst program, playlists had been prepared in consultation with family members. What a challenge, to create a selection of favourite music for someone else. Personal musical favourites are so idiosyncratic.
I can’t help wondering, ‘Who would create my playlist if my brain were damaged?’
A quick brainstorming session came up with some of my favourites. I’m amazed the list is so unsophisticated and random. But I imagine that today’s list would be entirely different from the one I would generate tomorrow..
Here are some random choices my playlists might include
- The Beethoven Violin Concerto
- Some Black Sorrows songs
- J.S. Bach, especially Brandenburg Concerto 2
- Mozart’s Horn Concerto 3
- Almost anything from Paul Kelly
- Swan Lake
- World War II songs
- Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice
- Some Gregorian Chant
- A few post Vatican II hymns.
What would your playlists look like?
You can watch the program, ‘Music on the Brain’, here.