By Shayne Silver-Riskin
Each semester begins at a point of harmony where you and your work seem to flow at the same steady beat. You find a rhythm – you receive assignments; you complete assignments; and you turn them in on time. But just as you approach the bridge between a semester’s beginning and its middle, your workload crescendos into chaos. Struggling to match the tempo of your accelerating daily tasks, you risk falling out of sync. To manage the stress, those around you recommend a variety of different instruments. Your friend offers you a beer, your professor offers you an extension (hopefully), and your family offers you plenty of good advice.
All these tools provide you with some relief, but, unfortunately, another potential key to your well-being often fades to the background. Music effectively combats many challenges to your mental health including restlessness, stress, and disorganization. Still, before you recognize how much you may need music, consider how much music needs you.
Music physically exists as a part of you, not apart from you. Air molecules constantly vibrate at a variety of frequencies without the interference of human observation. But it is only when these frequencies reach your ear that they transform into sound. That is, your brain perceives these vibrations and interprets them as noises with a variety of different pitches and timbres. You can imagine a world in which your brain interprets these vibrations as different sensory experiences like smells or colors, but your brain provides you with the magical gift of music by attributing tonal qualities to these physical phenomena.
No one knows for certain how or why human brains evolved to organize these sounds into music, but my favorite theory suggests that music essentially functioned as a performance-enhancing drug in survival situations. Your ancestors formed tribes that often faced attacks from predators or rival tribes. Many factors challenged their tribes’ ability to defend themselves. For instance, fellow tribesmen could throw your ancestors to the lions to save themselves. Alternatively, immense pain or fear could incapacitate your ancestors and prevent them from taking action. Music, however, stood in the way of their defeat by transporting their minds to an altered state of consciousness in which pain felt less painful and threats felt less threatening. In this state of consciousness, individual interests fell below group interests. But regardless of whether or not music helped prehistoric humans survive obstacles by altering their consciousnesses, music clearly has this effect on humans today.
Scientists remain unsure as to what produces consciousness or where consciousness exists physically. Still, neuroscientists approach consciousness by examining material phenomena that seem to correlate with it. In particular, they find that changes in your brain waves correspond to changes in your internal experiences. Notably, they found anxious minds produce brain waves with higher amplitudes. Put simply, your brain waves move faster in high stress situations. Recently, neuroscientists found that brain waves synchronize with the rhythm of music. That is, when you hear slow music your brain waves slow down with it. This manifests as a state of consciousness that responds to stressful stimuli with less anxiety and greater control.
In fact, numerous studies demonstrate the power of music to reduce stress in a variety of situations. Surgical patients in waiting rooms with music experience less stress and slower heart rates than those in waiting rooms without music. On the other side of the operating table, surgeons themselves feel less stress after exposure to music therapy. Individuals even respond to heights with less stress when provided with music.
But the impact music can have on your brain is not limited to stress reduction. On the contrary, music benefits all sorts of abilities. Dozens of studies demonstrate that music reduces both acute and chronic pain. Other studies reveal that music improves many functions that allow for strong academic performances. That is, it decreases fatigue, improves memory, and increases productivity.
Still, you do not need scientific data to know that music alters your consciousness. Consider how you felt when you last listened to your favorite song. At the moment, my favorite song is Be Here Now by George Harrison. When I listen to it, the guitar strings and the sitar strings work together to ground my feet to the floor beneath me. As each verse progresses, my shoulders release more tension than I knew they ever contained. I not only hear the lyrics, but I feel them. They return me to the philosophy that inspired them. Spiritualist and psychologist Ram Dass challenged his followers to exist within the present or “be here now.” Dass knew that the material world did represent the whole world. He also knew that rumination on the past produced depression and that rumination on the future produced anxiety, but that being present produced peace.
When your material world forces you to live in the past or the future, allow music to return you to the present. If you feel like you cannot keep up with the tempo of your workflow, just try to keep up with the tempo of the flow of your music. If you feel like you are out of rhythm with your classes, listen to the rhythms of your songs. If you feel like you and your roommate lack harmony, listen to harmony. Music may not cure all your problems, but a problematic world full of music is easier to live in than a problematic world devoid of it.
Shayne Silver-Riskin is a political science major from Cleveland, Ohio. This year, he is projected to spend more on Taco Bell Black Bean Crunchwrap Supremes than on his college tuition.