A blog in 3 parts by Judith-Kate Friedman
Do you ever feel blue and turn the radio on? Need energy and crank up some tunes? Have you ever found yourself humming and following a memory? Selecting a favorite song to set a romantic mood? Whether we live high-tech or low-key lives, in cities, suburbs or rurally, music is everywhere around us, in the natural world and our daily lives. Science is now showing what people world-wide have known for ages: Making music is good for our health.
In Summer 2010, with support of a Healthiest State Grant, a group of professional songwriters set out on a mission: to Restore Health and Community Through the Power of Song on the North Olympic Peninsula.
Sixteen months later, 360 music lovers, ranging in age from teenagers to 95 years old, had participated in a Songwriting Works interactive music-making program. Some found their voices in community songwriting workshops. Others discussed Music-for-Wellness in focus groups. They helped develop SW’s new MusicTeams model where nearly 30 “instigators” learned the health science of music and sparked song, played instruments, improvised and harmonized with neighbors, family and friends.
“You Gotta Get With It” - Building Brain Power through Song
17 songwriting workshops took place in health-care settings and 17 in community centers and churches. Professional songwriters launched in with a familiar tune. After that, it was all about originality: “What should we write about today?” At OlyCAP’s Encore Day Center in Port Angeles, a gent in his mid-90’s recalled driving a Chevy in the 1920s. His wife of 70 years remembered dancing when the Fox Trot was brand new. The facilitation SongTeam stood at the easel with markers, audio recorder, guitar and mandolin at the ready, catching their story, word for word. As rhythm caught on and others’ added details and opinions, the group found a melody:
“If you want to fox trot, you better ask a fox
Keep your eyes on the road or you’ll end up in a box!
You gotta get with it!
Older sister took the car one Friday night
Didn’t feel the wheel hit against the curb just right
Wheel fell off ‘cause the nuts weren’t tight
And you got to get with it! – You gotta get with it!”
©2011 Composing Together Works
The song-bug hit at Dungeness Courte Memory Care in Sequim, and Port Townsend’s Life Care Center where elders living with Alzheimer’s and their loved ones laughed, reflected on family camping trips, child-raising and moving to the region (“I’m a Local Now”). At St. Andrews church and the Olympic Unitarian Universalist Fellowship congregants wrote songs of faith, hope and gratitude. In Jefferson County, tales were told and songs sparked from Brinnon and Chimacum to the Boiler Room –Port Townsend’s youth-run coffeehouse– to Quilcene where neighbors spanning three generations expanded the town slogan “Pearl of the Peninsula” into an anthem.
How is all this music-making good for health? The ways are as plentiful as the variety in music itself! For starters: positive social engagement of any kind–from barn-raising to quilting, cooking to gardening to schmoozing–boosts the immune system. On the rural Olympic Peninsula where one in three people is age 60+, the Olympic Area Agency on Aging found that social engagement was the #1 need among older adults and that isolation was a primary factor in health and economic losses for family caregivers. Researchers Kahn and Rowe found that social engagement has a direct positive impact on healthy “successful” aging and may extend longevity. Enjoying one’s musical preferences – be it for folk, jazz, pop, rock, country, gospel, classical, blues or old-time songs – also enhances immune function. Spontaneity, at the center of all creative musical exchange, goes hand in hand with quality of life, according to the Eden Alternative’s Dr. William and Jude Thomas and their pioneering work transforming long-term care in America.
Perhaps most of all: the brain “lights up” on music more than in almost any other human activity. Centers for language, emotion, motor coordination, imagery, and memory, and more, are brought into play. In this fiesta of activity, timing, imagination, interaction, improvisation, spontaneity and surprise cause the brain to “leap” and connect freshly. This increase in neural connectivity speeds our intelligence, allowing thoughts and responses to move more quickly. We can transcend and perhaps even pre-empt dementia as we cross new bridges of creativity and confidence.
In his talks about creativity and health, the late Dr. Gene Cohen, noted psychiatrist, gerontologist and author of the Creative Age and the Mature Mind, compared our thoughts to squirrels moving through trees:
“In a brain with fewer dendrites [neural connectors] the leaps between synapses [gaps] would be like leaps between bare-branched trees. The spaces on bare-branched trees would be wider to navigate, the leaps more difficult to make. In contrast, in a brain [with] many branches and connections—a great number of dendrites—a person’s thoughts and responses, like our leaping squirrel, could move with more facility between ideas and associations. The more bridges or branches there are, the more connectivity and communication.” Music-making stimulates the growth of these “bridges and branches.”
As individuals, and collectively, we increase brain “elasticity” and resilience whenever we share a story, tell a joke, find melodies, explore, imagine, join breath, song, and dance together, each time we get in a rhythmic groove (entrainment).
In Parts 2 and 3 of this blog, we’ll explore SW’s 8 Principles of Creative Engagement, serve up Music for Wellness recipes, talk with some songwriters, caregivers and instigators, and celebrate more rural health project outcomes.
Judith-Kate Friedman is the founder and director of Songwriting Works Educational Foundation.