Music is a splendid thing. It can cheer you up when you’re sad, make you dance like a fool, and allow you to drown out the world when you need to. But music has its scientific uses, too. The documentary Alive Insidedetails how dementia patients react positively when given iPods filled with their old favorite songs. The music seems to help them “come alive” again. While listening to familiar songs, many of the documentary’s patients can sing along, answer questions about their past, and even carry on brief conversations with others.
“Music imprints itself on the brain deeper than any other human experience,” says neurologist Oliver Sacks, who appears in the film. “Music evokes emotion, and emotion can bring with it memory.”
The documentary follows recent studies showing that music can improve the memories of dementia patients, and even help them develop new memories.
Here, a look at some other things music has been known to “cure”
1. Low Birth Weight
Babies born too early often require extended stays in the hospital to help them gain weight and strength. To help facilitate this process, many hospitals turn to music. A team of Canadian researchers found that playing music to preemies reduced their pain levels and encouraged better feeding habits, which in turn helped with weight-gain. Hospitals use musical instruments to mimic the sounds of a mother’s heartbeat and womb to lull premature babies to sleep. Researchers also say that playing calming Mozart to premature infants significantly reduces the amount of energy they expend, which allows them gain weight.
It “makes you wonder whether neonatal intensive care units should consider music exposure as standard practice for at-risk infants,” says Dr. Nestor Lopez-Duran at child-psych.org
2. Droopy Plants
If music helps babies grow, can it do the same thing for plants? Dorothy Retallack says yes. She wrote a book in 1973 calledThe Sound of Music and Plants, which detailed the effects of musicon plant growth. Retallack played rock music to one group of plants and easy listening music to another, identical group. At the end of the study, the ‘easy listening’ plants were uniform in size, full and green, and were even leaning toward the source of the music. The rock music plants had grown tall, but they were droopy, with faded leaves, and were leaning away from the radio
3. The Damaging Effects of Brain Damage
Of the 1.5 million Americans who sustain brain damage each year, roughly 90,000 of them will be left with a long-term movement or speech disability. As treatment, researchers use musicto stimulate the areas of the brain that control these two functions.
When given a rhythm to walk or dance to, people with neurological damage caused by stroke or Parkinson’s disease can “regain a symmetrical strideand a sense of balance.” The beats in music help serve as a footstep cue for the brain.
Similarly, rhythm and pitch can help patients sing what words they can’t say. A study of autistic children who couldn’t speak found that music therapy helped these children articulate words. Some of these kids said their first words ever as a result of the treatment.
“We are just starting to understand how powerful music can be. We don’t know what the limits are.” says Michael De Georgia, director of the Center for Music and Medicine at Case Western Reserve University’s University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland.
4. Teen Loitering
Public libraries, malls, and train stations already know this: Teenagers typically don’t like classical music. In fact, they dislike it so much that “it sends them scurrying awaylike frightened mice,” says theLA Times. The theory is that when the brain hears something it dislikes, it suppresses dopamine, “the pleasure chemical.” And as teenagers’ moods fall, they go elsewhere to find something to bring it back up.
So if you want the neighbor kids to get off your lawn, turn up the Tchaikovsky
5. Hearing Loss
OK, maybe music can’t cure hearing loss, but it may help prevent it. A study of 163 adults, 74 of them lifelong musicians, had participants take a series of hearing tests. The lifelong musicians processed sound betterthan non-musicians, with the gap widening with age. “A 70-year-old musician understood speech in a noisy environment as well as a 50-year-old non-musician,” explains Linda Searling at theWashington Post