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Measuring the Power of Music

Seated in the pews of a South Denver church Wednesday night — the angelic voices of 80 teen Honors Choir members rippling through the space around me — I suddenly felt the hair on my forearms raise, and my eyes moisten. Just a few bars into Cantate Domino I, quite inexplicably, was fighting back tears. It wasn’t the first time this had happened.

Twenty-three miles into the Rim Rock Marathon last November, I was overcome with goosebumps and happy tears when my IPod shuffle spit out the first few bars of Jane’s Addiction’s version of “Sympathy for the Devil”. I picked up the pace and ran my fastest 26.2-miler ever.

Even 35 years after I first saw “The Sound of Music” with my Dad, a few bars of Edelweiss still literally chokes me up.

Why? According to a growing body of research, there’s a clear scientific, and perhaps evolutionary reason.

Studies show that music often prompts pulse to quicken, blood flow in certain areas of the brain to increase, and conductivity in the skin to change. According to one recent ground breaking study in the journal Nature Neuroscience, it also boosts production of the brain chemical dopamine — the same neurochemical juice evoked by sex, food, and cocaine — by more than 9 percent.

Scientists point to this paper and others as proof that music is inextricably linked with our deepest reward systems. And some have gone so far as to theorize how.

Psychobiologist Jaak Panksepp theorizes that the shivers, a.k.a. frisson, we suddenly feel when treated to a crescendo in a Brahms Concerto or an abrupt tempo change in a Jimmy Hendrix riff may be an evolutionary left-over, designed to help us protect our offspring when we can’t see them. Mom is separated from baby, baby lets out a distress call, and Mom’s body reacts in a fight-or-flight manner — pulse quickening, skin growing chilled — to prompt a swift response and motivate Mom to reunite with baby and warm up.

Perhaps, theorizes Stanford musicologist David Huron, our nervous system initially reacts to music with fear (like that distress call) then pleasure, or even joy, when we realize it’s benign.

Sadly, not everyone gets the chills from music. Research suggests that only about half of us often have such a visceral response, and 8 percent never feel it at all. (Interestingly, one recent study found that people who are “particularly open to new experiences” are more likely to be physiologically moved by music.

But for many, the physical benefits of music can be profound. A paper,released this month in JAMA Pediatrics, found that pediatric Emergency Room patients who listened to music during procedures perceived less pain. Another found that listening to music while working out was associated with a lowering of perceived exertion, and an increase in feeling “in the zone.”

It appears that science is catching up with what many of us have sensed all along: that music affects us in a very real and measurable way.

Something to think about as lawmakers and school administrators continue to mull cuts in arts funding.

Lisa Marshall is a freelance health and medical science writer in Lyons, Colo. Connect at www.lisaannmarshall.com.

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