Playlists of favourite music and the hormone oxytocin featured in a Catalystprogram 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.

Playlists and the cuddle hormone
Playlists and the cuddle hormone

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.

Group hugs for bonding
Group hugs for bonding

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
  • Coppelia
  • 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.

16 replies on “Playlists and the cuddle hormone”

  1. I must watch this programme! Thanks Maureen for another great blog.
    But something in your blog really surprised me!! You had a nun you didn’t like?
    They were a bunch of such hard, uncaring women. That’s my polite version. We would all have been better off had they played music as they taught.
    Damian had a magical teacher in grade six in Bangkok – Dr Siler introduced the kids to background classical music in his classes and I know Damian thrived that year. Was that the key to such a well remembered teacher?

    1. The program was wonderful. Do watch it, Elizabeth. Lucky Damian. I wish I’d been introduced to more music when I was young. But I mostly play music whenever I write now.

      Now I’m surprised you didn’t know I didn’t like all the nuns. Some of them should not have been allowed to teach. The one who told me I sang like an old crow damaged my confidence. I think she should have TAUGHT me how to sing, not tell me to mime. I can whistle in tune but not sing. There was also a nun who told me I’d never make an artist. I didn’t necessarily want to be an artist, but I would have loved the confidence to have a go at drawing and painting. This is probably the subject of another blog! As well, one of the nuns told me I ran like a horse. Have you ever seen me run?

      Thanks for your comment. I love hearing from you. Mxx

  2. There is a great concert at the Concert Hall on Friday 30th May 2016 at 7.30pm.
    It’s an initiative of the Spirit of the Streets choir and will include choirs from the following:
    Spirit of the Streets Choir • The Real Sing • GALSWA • Madjitil Moorna • Parkinsong
    Harrys Anonymous • Starlight Hotel • St John of God Community Choir.
    The amazing director of the Spirit of the Streets choir, Bernard Carney, has written a song for the event and can be heard here the site has a great video of the benefits of singing.

    1. That sounds wonderful, Peter. I will most definitely go. And thanks for the link. It reinforces the benefits of singing, and I’m sure people in the choirs experience bursts of oxytocin and feel amazing because they are singing with other people. The video is great. The Spirit of the Streets choir is a credit to Bernard Carney and the singers. Thanks for alerting me to the concert. I’ll pass the word along.

  3. Wasnt it incredible? We watched the programme and were in awe as these trapped souls were unravelled from rigidity by music that they loved.
    My playlist would be very different from yours Maureen … but I know would switch on parts of my brain regardless
    Caledonia – Dougie McLean
    Flower of Scotland – Scottish Military Pipe band
    Layla – Eric Clapton
    Imagine -John Lennon
    Nutbush City Limits – Ike and Tina Turner

    1. Thanks for sharing your playlist, Rachel. Amazing the difference a generation makes in music choices. Let’s hope we never have to depend on our loved ones to create our playlists.

      The Catalyst program really opened my eyes (and my heart) to what it must be like to be as stuck and frozen as those people with brain damage from different causes.

  4. When my father was in the late stages of his dementia, I put some of his favourite music on my old iPod for him. He tried to sing along, but it didn’t always seem to sink in. It was mainly music from the ’70s and ’80s, the music he played during my childhood and adolescence. It’s only recently I realised I should have played music from the ’40s, ’50s, and even 60s, the music of his formative years. I know he liked Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash and The Pretenders (I think) but it didn’t even occur to me to play them.

    This podcast might be of interest to you, too: It made me cry, especially towards the end of the programme, which was rather embarrassing because I was out walking the dogs at the time!

    1. I wonder what inspired you to get your father to listen to music, Louise? If music boosts oxytocin he would have experienced pleasure, even though he did not remember the music. What a lucky man to have you thinking about his enjoyment. Having worked in an aged care facility in the 90s to maintain my registration, I can’t help thinking about the breakthroughs in knowledge that have happened since then.

      Thanks for the link. I can see why it made you feel sad. This whole topic is amazing.

      1. Dad loved music—we were never told off for playing music loudly because he played it louder. You heard his car coming, not from the engine but from the beat! He was agitated and I thought it might help him to hear familiar tunes, but I should have gone further back in his life than I did. At least it gave him some comfort.

        Until I read your post I didn’t know music helped oxytocin release. I remember those surges of love for my child when breast-feeding, which I’m sure help with bonding, but I didn’t realise music worked through the same hormone. It makes sense to me—a lot of the power of music is through the emotion it evokes.

        1. The music/oxytocin release information is aparently quite new. But I’m surely going to play a lot more music from now on.

          1. Hi Maureen,
            I came across your posts and felt to connect with you. I too was very moved by the Catalyst program and the radio national program on the power of music.
            I am a dance movement therapist finishing off my diploma by June and working with children and the aged. By carefully selecting music oxytocin and movement starts to flow and the hug factor kicks in! You may also be interested in a documentary Alive Inside about prescriptive playlists for dementia patients.
            I’d be interested in coming to your singing group as a friendly observer/participant, Angela

            1. Hello, Angela. Thank you for commenting on post. I have never heard of dance movement therapists, but as a retired family counsellor, I can see how valuable dance and movement could be as therapy. What a wonderful career. Good luck with it. I think you may have misread my post: I do not have a singing group of any sort, but if I did of course you would be very welcome!

            2. Hi Maureen,
              I saw a singing group advertised for people with Parkinson’s. I’ll track back to find it.
              Best Wishes, Angela

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