We, humans, have been trying to understand the world since the dawn of time. Our curiosity helped us to touch on some of nature’s hidden secrets: the constitution of matter, energy, the fabric of space-time, the origins of the Universe, nature, the magic of DNA, to name a few. But, of course, there are so many mysteries that we are blind to. For instance, the mystery of the human brain and mind; where do thoughts and feelings come from? Where do our hopes and desires live? And what about the love or experience of beauty? What about dance, music, art, and literature? So, music, just like the Universe itself, still remains mostly a mystery.
Brain, Mind, and Music
We have to touch on the brain and mind terminology a bit to understand why and how music is such a potent wellness tool. In western thought, the word mind typically includes thoughts, hopes, desires, memories, beliefs, and experiences, and the brain is an organ with cells, blood, and other fun matter. Some brain and AI scientists, philosophers, and others (myself included) like to think of the brain as a computational system. Many networks and interconnected with neurons talking and computing the input: smells, taste, sound, touch, noise; creating an output: pleasure, pain, anger, etc. We can make the analogy for the brain as hardware, and a mind is a software or program. So, different minds or mental processes can be running on the same brain. The yogic tradition defines the mind as consciousness, perception, memory, thinking, and imagination. At any given time, the different programs can be brought to life.
Interestingly, music affects all of the brain processes.
As Daniel J. Levitin, a neuroscientist, explains in one of his books: “This Is Your Brain on Music (1)” that music listening, performance, and composition engage nearly every area of the brain that we have so far identified and involved with nearly every natural subsystem. Different neural regions handle different aspects of the music – the brain uses functional segregation for music processing and employs a system of feature detectors whose job is to analyze specific aspects of the music signal such as pitch, tempo, timbre, and so on. Some music processing has points in common with the operation required to analyze other sounds; understanding speech, for example, requires that we segment a flurry of sounds into words, sentences, and phrases and that we can understand aspects beyond the words such as sarcasm. Several different dimensions of musical sounds need to be analyzed – usually involving several quasi-independent neural processes – and then need to be brought together to form a coherent representation of what we’re listening to.
In other words, music is good for your entire brain and mind. It is a beautiful mystery. Music can make us cry, laugh, dance, move us, and make us crazy.
Daniel J. Levitin opened my eyes to the music. He noted that music, as we know it today, where the band or orchestra performs on stage, and the audience is listening to it, is a very unusual arrangement given our species’ history. It was only as recent as 500 years ago that music was divided into these two classes, performers and listeners. That concert halls built specifically for musical performance started to emerge here and there. Before that, everyone participated in the making of music. Throughout most of the world, and for the most part of human history, it was as natural an activity as breathing and walking. As much as I love classical music and Broadway, for the life of me, I can’t sit for so many hours. Instead, I love being a part of the audience, humming along and moving to free my mind and body.
So, as for my personal experience, I have always loved poetry. I started writing when I was five years old. Literature and music, however, occupy a very special place in my heart. As a little girl, I used to dance with Tina Turner and some Russian rock. Honestly, I can’t play an instrument or sing well. But, if a song touches my soul, I take time to memorize lyrics. I never took any dance classes as a kid because I was very shy and chubby. However, in my late 30th, as I embarked on my wellness journey, I joined the New York City Hip Hop club, followed by fun Zumba, African dance, and so on. I also attained my yogic teaching certificate, where I honed my voice with Vedic chanting. As time went by, I discovered new music from Grateful Dead to Ozzy Ozborne, Beethoven, The Doors, Pink, Jewel, and my latest obsession, a jam, and a rock’n’roll band, Phish. Many of us tend to be literally close-minded to the new music. The brain is lazy and hates new things. However, if you are willing to give a new melody a chance, you might discover something magical! Because as we are learning – the brain has neuroplasticity (an ability to change) and so we can acquire new music tastes. Sometimes, we just need to give it a chance.
Chant, Jam, Dance, and Make Your Heart Smile
The kind of music we like is very personal. Daniel J. Levitin explains that these connections are established and influenced by a person’s social development. Music connects us to the society and culture we were born to. Most people have formed their musical tastes by the age of 18 or 20. The reason for this is not entirely clear, but it may partly be because we become less open to new experiences as we age. When we are young, we are eager to discover new things and form new social bonds, which in turn have a great influence on our musical tastes. We often find ourselves listening to (and liking) the music our friends listen to. These preferences then become a mark of personal and group identity. Due to the role that these social factors play in shaping our musical tastes, it becomes clear that they are eventually governed by chance factors: what culture you were born into, where you went to school, who you socialized with, and what music your social group happened to be listening to.
However, if you are open-minded and allow your mind to expand, you can sample and learn to appreciate new music. For me, it all started with my 41st birthday – a spooky Halloween night in Vegas as my husband took me to see the infamous band from Vermont called Phish. It was a freak show. People were wearing all kinds of costumes, and the band played for five hours. And so, it was a love from the first song!
A call and response chanting sessions or concerts are known as Kirtan. Additionally, a teacher can give a mantra to a student for an individual yoga practice. One of the translations of the word “mantra” is to free oneself from the boundaries of the mind. Mantra can also be viewed as a sacred syllable, a word, or a verse that possesses mystical or spiritual attributes – a special meaning. Think of custom-made designer shoes made specifically for your sole (assuming your sole has toes). Some mantras are spoken aloud or repeated internally. A slogan would be another verb for us to understand. The Sanskrit mantras can have many meanings.
Similarly, in the Jewish tradition, there is a word, nigun (pronounced nee-gune). Nigun is a song without complicated lyrics or a set tune, but a very simple sound in repetition. In Islam, there are 99 names for Allah that we chant. In Christian tradition, we may chant the sacred Christ mantra. And so on. Alternatively, we might choose a simple phrase like “peace,” “love,” etc.
Many Phish songs are call and response. When Trey says, ay-oh, and the audience responds. The concerts can get my granny and me dancing to the beat, listening, dancing, and moving connected.
Like Kirtan and Yoga, Phish empowers the audience. There is a feeling of connection to the band and audience through the power of rhythm and song. Phish can be silly, funny; jams can go on for up to 20 minutes. Lyrically and musically complex. The crowd goes nuts, multiple generations, all sizes, and colors. Phish is a united dance, an expression of strength. We leave our egos, ethnicities, masks and transform into a united crowd of freak shows for the Phish fans as we chant, dance, and throw glowsticks.
Interestingly, it is only 100 years or so that the ties between musical sound and human movement have been minimized, said John Blocking, the anthropologist and author of How Musical Is Man. The embodied nature of music categorizes music across cultures and times. And Daniel J. Levitin wrote that musical instruments are among the oldest human-made artifacts that we found that predate agriculture in our people’s history. Music led us from ape to human. First, mankind lived like animals; then, something happened that unleashed the power of imagination – speech, but if Levitane is right, learning to talk and listen, we were calling and responding. A primal power of rhythm, melody, and voice music brought us together. We were singing around the campfire to ward off predators, singing for social cooperation, and singing around the fire. And music is as Robin Dando, professor at Oxford, believes that a few hundred thousand years ago, when ancient humans began to make music, dance, and sing, they did it not just to connect but to tranced.
From Head To Heart
The key is to get out of the head into a full embodiment experience. While the repetition of the sound offers almost an intoxication that can only come from our hearts. We go into that special place that music takes us to.
For many of us, sitting still and focusing on breathing when the mind chases a monkey on cocaine that stole our last dollar. At least that is the perception many of us have when we sit down. What’s for lunch? Why does my sister hate me? I should could’ve, etc. Yet, when we engage in dancing and singing, our monkey mind naturally quiets.
Not to mention, Yoga is not about sitting atop the mountain is a perfect lotus pose, smiling, as a bird is shitting on your head. It is about functioning in the mundane. To know when to shush the bird and to stay present with life as it flows through pandemics, job loss, wrinkles, death, joy, marriages, divorces, and so on. In other words, being spiritual, to me, means to find sacred in daily life, to be a little kinder to myself and others. But of course, the practice of mindfulness (or spirituality or Yoga or whatever else you are calling it) is also about being alive. Perhaps, even touching the divinity and mystery of the Universe around us. And, music can do that for us. Playing your favorite tunes simply can boost your mood.
Healing, Music, and Phish
I’ve been practicing, studying, and teaching classical Yoga for over two decades. It took a lot of discipline and missed parties, lost friends, and nearly a divorce. So, I’ve learned the rules of how to teach and craft individual and group classes. In addition, I’ve studied yogic scriptures, human anatomy, Sanskrit, and the history of Yoga. Mind you, and I was a very bad student because I’ve never been really interested in subjects that I had to learn. Opposite, during my 10-year training, I applied myself with my heart, body, mind, and soul. As a result, my life completely changed as my yogic journey progressed. I quit smoking, lost weight, met the love of my life, moved to my dream house.
Yet, nothing prepared me for the Phish show. The hall went dark. Four ordinary dudes came on stage, dressed in simple hippy outfits. They opened with a famous Carini, the primordial sounds that initiated in the pit of my stomach. It was incredible, and my whole body was vibrating on some new frequency. I closed my eyes, and I was breathing it, feeling it, tasting it. I became the music, the concert hall disappeared. I heard a scream, a release that came from the pit of my being. And just like that, something let go, settled, and I touched the mystery of life with music and dancing. As I was diving into the melody, the primordial drums, I had visions of the desert, distant stars, and the mountains. I was riding giant snakes through the colored dunes of Arabia, flying through the stars to Europa, tasting the music with my second brain, the belly. The music tasted like cotton candy.
I freed my mind, set my soul free, and was welding in the velvet sea…
I felt an intense sense of connection. In my yogic teachings, I only grasped the concept of ultimate connection or ecstasy intellectually. As I was listening to the majestic sound of the guitar, for a beat, I was a spark, a star in a galaxy. My spirit was connected with the whole Universe. My material possessions, body, and daily struggles lost their meaning as I kept listening to the heartbeat of the Universe in the melody. I didn’t care or crave for anything; I just was! I was utterly drained in sweat; I lost my voice from chanting with Phish and other crazies. It took some time to recover. In fact, I am still not sure how it all works. But let me assure you, it does.
Music as a Wellness Tool
Every moment can become an opportunity to practice total connection with the Universe, life, our deep inner self, and others. In fact, one of the most dramatic effects of music is to bring the state of trans or altered state. When listening to music, brainwaves move from the high-beta of ordinary consciousness down into the meditative ranges of alpha and theta. At the same time, levels of stress hormones drop, spiking dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, and oxytocin. To conclude, dancing and music can really help us unite body, mind, and spirit, which is Yoga. Of course, I think thousand hours of practice prepared my mind to let go and my body to follow.
How can you bring more singing into your life? Perhaps through spiritual music, you sing along in a house of worship. Perhaps singing along to a favorite artist in your kitchen as you pack lunches or scrub dishes. Perhaps adding chanting to your yoga or meditation practice. Perhaps singing again in the shower or the car if you’ve gotten out of the habit.
So what are you waiting for? Tune in, listen and drop out!
(1) This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by