Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Power of Singing

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The Power of Singing

A session in the 2015 Chorus America Conference and reported in The Voice by Kelsey Menehan first triggered Chorale Bel Canto’s interest in the power of singing. Menehan, a writer, psychotherapist and longtime choral singer based in San Francisco, discusses current research on the brain and singing.

When we asked our singers and patrons what Chorale Bel Canto meant to them, we heard words that confirmed this research in striking ways. “Beautiful singing” is more than just an aesthetic pleasure; it has the power to change our lives in many ways.

From now until the end of the year, we are going to discuss on our blog some of this up-to-the-minute research on singing and the brain that so excites us. In our newsletters, our singers and donors will share their experiences with the power of singing in four areas:

·       The therapeutic power of singing
·       The power of singing to aid learning
·       The power of singing to strengthen brain function in the elderly
·       The power of singing to build community

We invite you to subscribe to our blog
(scroll over to the far right and sign up)
to follow this series and to enjoy our posts throughout the concert season.

In the Chorus America Conference presentation, Dr. Aniruddh D. Patel, professor of Psychology at Tufts University in Boston, described his research on how singing may benefit brain function and explained the relationship he and others are discovering between music and language. They are discovering just how important singing is.

Aniruddh D. Patel

Human song connects us to one another and to other species, but singing plays a unique role in human brain function. Most species are born with their “song” and it changes little over time. Humans are unique in that they can learn songs, perhaps because of the greater size of our temporal lobe, the area of the brain that processes language comprehension and emotional association.

The temporal lobe is one of four major lobes in the cerebral cortex in the brain of mammals. It is involved in the retention of visual memories, language comprehension, and emotional associations.

The temporal lobes are located in the bottom middle part of the cortex on both sides of the brain, right behind the temples. They process auditory information from the ears, enabling us to make sense of different speech sounds and pitches. The right temporal lobe plays a central role in producing or perceiving song, a fact used by physicians in singing as therapy.

Music as a healing tool is deeply rooted in ancient cultures. The ancient Greeks said, “Men have song as a physician for pain.” Apollo, the Greek god of Medicine, playing a golden lyre, was also the god of Music. Native American Shamans used singing in healing rituals. Hindi Ayurvedic medicine uses the voice to balance and re-align the chakras. Certain ancient Israelite prophetic groups used music to achieve ecstasy, or a state of transcendence.

Today, the Sound Healing Network (founded in 2002), says modern medicine increasingly recognizes sound healing as a therapeutic field.

Dr. Mitchell Gaynor, director of medical oncology and integrative medicine at the Strang-Cornell Cancer Prevention Center in New York says, "Sound can actually change out immune system. Our Interluken-1 level, which is an index of our immune system, goes up between 12 1/2 and 15 percent after Gregorian chanting or listening to certain forms of music. And after listening to this music for 20 minutes, our immunoglobin levels in our blood are significantly increased." There is not an organ system in our body that is not affected by sound, music, and vibration," he says. "Sound can help people who are sick, especially cancer patients."

Dr. Patel notes that the right temporal lobe dominance in song is useful in treating specific neurological conditions.

People who have suffered damage in their brain’s left hemisphere after stroke often have problems producing language—a condition called nonfluent aphasia. “Patients may have trouble putting a three-word sentence together and yet if you ask them to sing an old song, they will sing it fluently,” Patel says. Oliver Sacks, in his book Musicophilia, proves that this occurs because specialized areas of song in the brain are not damaged by the stroke.

In the 1970s, doctors devised Melodic Intonation Therapy (MIT) to help patients with nonfluent aphasia. Patients intoned basic phrases, such as “I love you,” to short, simple melodies with a rhythmic component. “The phrases gradually get longer and the goal is ultimately to get the patient to say what they want to say, not just stock phrases,” Patel says.

Harvard Medical School, in a program conducted by Gottfried Schlaug, is comparing MIT to conventional speech therapy. Thus far, the music therapy shows a 200 percent improvement, whereas speech therapy produces a 160 percent improvement. Brain imaging confirmed what the researchers were observing: “Right hemisphere brain regions involved in singing had taken over for some of the damaged parts in the left hemisphere,” Patel says, “and had been recruited for speech.”

Patel, looking to future research, asks, "If you're a singer and you have a stroke, would you recover faster?"

Research has also found evidence that even patients with severe dementia and Alzheimer's disease retain musical memory. "Patients might not know your name, says Patel, "but if you play a familiar song to them, they might sing along, and know the melody in great detail."

“Music provides a way to access regions of the brain and reawaken autobiographical memory when language won’t,” Patel says. “The music we remember from our youth often reawakens memories of where we were in our lives, who we were with, what we were like, what we were going through.” Studies at UC Davis suggest the reason for this is that an area of the brain slower to atrophy in Alzheimer’s disease is the area that processes music and autobiographical memories.

The strongest effects of music therapy may be on patients’ emotions, particularly their anxiety levels. “The music does not ameliorate the cognitive effects of the dementia,” Patel says, “but it does have a strong impact on a patient’s emotional state, and potentially on quality of life.”

To learn more, read Aniruddh D. Patel’s Music, Language and the Brain (Oxford University Press) or view his series of 18 half-hour lectures in The Great Courses, “Music and the Brain.”

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