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The Beat that Moves You

December 12, 2017
[Note: This is part three in a series. In part one, we covered the basics of music therapy and veterans coping with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). In part two, we covered the neuroscience of PTSD and TBI, and the research behind how sound and music interact with the traumatized brain.]

The Beat that Moves You: Music, Music Therapy, and Everyday Life


I think the place of music in the world today is overwhelming. It is the emotional life of most people.”      
– Leonard Cohen


Have you ever seen a toddler start dancing just because a beat came on and they had to move? When you think about your life as a movie, what’s the soundtrack? Is there a song you connect with a person you miss and just hearing the opening makes you tear up? 

Most people have memories of hearing a song at a perfect moment, when they really needed it. It made their spine tingle and their heart lift and, in some profound way, their life bearable. (Sidenote: for me, this happened when I heard Jason Isbell’s “Relatively Easy” for the first time. I was having the worst year of my life, and that song became a sort of anthem that got me through it.)

Now’s a good time to see the emotional impact of music, as our public spaces are inundated with constant cheesy Christmas music that might either give you fond memories or make you wear earplugs everywhere you go (and with great apologies to the retail workers who can never escape it).

We want to talk about other sound (please, anything else). So what happens in moments when a particular song, playlist, noise or album moves you? Why and how do humans feel music so powerfully? Moreover, there are simple strategies all people can use to help music do more for them in their everyday lives, so let’s talk about those, too.

Why Music Matters: History, Community, Sound

Let’s start with some basics about human history. Universally, for every time and place where there’s a historical record, humans have had music, probably even before we had language.[1] Since the first humans, we’ve used patterned sounds to create and maintain community, from chanting, foot stomping and whistling, drumming, using ouds and organs, all the way to Prince’s teal guitar, Kanye buying entire catalogues to use as samples, and whatever your favorite song happens to be this month.

That’s probably why music is so ubiquitous at social gatherings, playing a role in rituals and spirituality, in celebrations (like the first dance between a married couple), in relieving boredom (sea shanties), or in hardship (slave songs, mourning songs, the way Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” helps you cry).  If you are a human being, chances are good that music is part of how you learned who you were and who your people were. It’s integral to how you keep learning those lessons over time and find out where you belong.  

As musical artists know, the best songs are those that reach across time, place, and technology to touch other people. That said, the specific ways we experience music are person-dependent. Kernkraft 400’s “Zombie Nation” may sound grating to your next-door neighbor or your girlfriend, but be exactly the thing you need to get going. Music is both communal and intensely personal.

Lots of us naturally but unconsciously rely on musical routine to frame our activities. You might wake up to Beyoncé’s “Formation” as your morning alarm, stream Stan Getz while you relax, think about high school when The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” plays, or be constantly updating your custom workout mix to help you get more out of gym time.

Since everyone has stressful and difficult moments, moments they are angry or sad or excited or want to celebrate, the next question becomes how we can consciously use music to help us at those times.

And this is breathtakingly simple. All it takes is a bit of forethought, mindfulness, and self-examination. Start by making a few notes on what music helps you the most at which times. If there are songs or albums that are difficult to hear, it makes sense to note those down, too. In order to make that happen, it really is a simple process: think about what you like to hear, when and why, and be creative. Put together playlists that combine songs based on your own moods and experiences, and put together playlists that make you feel like your best self. Experiment with what works and change them up as you go!

New music is also important. Since music has a direct impact on our brains, exposing yourself to fresh sounds helps you keep your synapses firing. None of these actions are certified music therapy, but they can definitely help. Here’s how music therapy’s different, particularly for vets with PTSD.

Music Therapy vs. Everyday Music: What to Expect

It used to be that treatment professionals believed that the best and only treatment for trauma or anxiety was straight exposure therapy, where you are gradually exposed to things that caused you pain in a controlled environment until they don’t get in the way of your life.[2] That works for some people, but it is a grueling process, and requires a ton of commitment. Although every patient’s experience is different, given the levels of stress and structural brain changes involved in Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD, experts are now finding this isn’t the only or single most productive place for patients to start.

What music therapists do, sometimes in combination with other therapeutic providers, is help you identify areas in your life where your trauma is making you struggle. These generally involve memories of traumatic experiences like your tour or an experience of assault, but can manifest in relationship problems, feeling disconnected from the world, difficulty concentrating, hypervigilance, or struggles processing anger 

Because of music’s particular and measurable impacts on the brain, music therapy allows a gentler but extremely effective treatment.  Music therapists work with their clients by creating specific, individualized therapy protocols. This means they elicit information about your life and your musical preferences, help you identify songs and sounds that impact your feelings, and then create a customized music sequence you can use to work on these issues. If you undergo treatment using music therapy, you will usually be given a series of recordings that are carefully edited so that they match specific needs.

So, for example, your protocol might begin with a theme song, something you think really represents you and your sense of your self. It then is followed by songs that are calming and help you settle into the listening session. Then, the sound protocol could progress to music that makes you feel more anxious or agitated, but with the knowledge that that anxiety won’t last forever. Another series of sounds or songs can be used to help you transition back into your everyday life.

Importantly, like a medication, this isn’t something that you do once and then everything is solved. Often, you will listen to the playlist with the music therapist in the office, and then listen at a set time every day at home. You might be asked to journal about what you’re feeling as you listen. Your music therapist may help you incorporate drumming or other means of producing sound to help you heal.  Your specific playlist can change as your brain, coping mechanisms, or comfort evolves.

The basic idea is that music, because it directly impacts both your biology and your emotional experience, can help you recover. With your help, your brain can gradually rebuild connections your trauma severed, help end the anxiety-flooding cycle, and help your mind and body open back up to the present and new experiences.

Not all music is created equal, and for those who have diagnosed PTSD or TBI, their coping and trigger mechanisms are often really tied up in their experiences of sound. Given the profound impacts sound has on the human brain, people who want to use music to aid their recovery shouldn’t just ad-hoc this. Instead. It’s important to find a licensed and credentialed music therapist.

That said, whether you have a diagnosis or not, music has power. Consciously harnessing that power can improve your life.


[1] Schulkin & Raglin 2014 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4166316/)
[2] See https://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/treatment/therapy-med/prolonged-exposure-therapy.asp for one description of this treatment method.