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Music can change the world because it can change people - Bono

We know that we feel better when we listen to music, but we may not be sure exactly why.

Dr. Frank Russo, a professor of psychology at Toronto Metropolitan University, is trying to find out. His focus is primarily in auditory cognitive neuroscience, and he holds additional positions with the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute and the University of Toronto as well.

“There is substantial evidence accumulated at this point that music listening can be beneficial for regulating stress and anxiety,” says Frank.

Frank also notes that “there is evidence to show that performing music in a group can uplift mood”.

According to Frank, there is evidence to show that singing in a group choir not only builds social connections, mitigating feelings of social isolation, but it also builds a special feelin of trust amongst choir members.

Various studies have looked at different elements of group performance – whether one person performs at a time, or if people need to perform together – and it’s shown that group performance is what keeps us connected.

Our brains link to one another, and start to recognize that we’re a cohesive unit.

Or, in Frank’s words, “you lose sight of where you end and the next person begins.”

A musician in his own right, Frank was always interested in cognitive science as well – how we think, and how we connect to music.

Those combined interests led to him pursuing his PhD, and running his own lab that conducts some of the most important research on music and science in the country.

Frank says that there is also some degree of evidence to support the theory that music listening and singing can be beneficial for patients experiencing cognitive decline, for example as a result of dementia.

Social media provides many examples of elderly persons experiencing cognitive decline who seem to at least temporarily regain some of their lost cognitive fluidity when they sing or hear music.

Frank is just as fascinated by videos of Alzheimer’s patients connecting with music as the rest of us. Patients who are no longer able to converse can sometimes recognize, and even sing along with lyrics they first learned decades ago.

“It’s something that we don’t fully understand yet, there’s lots of people working on how to harness and improve that including my own group. At this point we believe that the core mechanism of action involves music’s ability to activate the ancient mesolimbic reward system of the brain and trigger music-associated memories.”

Frank notes that along with the social benefit of singing, there’s also a strengthening of the voice, which can be helpful for these conditions, or for aphasia where someone is struggling with speech such as after a stroke.

With Alzheimer’s and dementia patients there can often be a lot of agitation and anxiety, especially if they are no longer familiar with their surroundings.

Music can help calm that anxiety, and can help reduce those stressful episodes that are taxing on both patients and their families and caregivers alike.

He has also been active in leading research projects concerning singing and Parkinson’s disease, which shows that singing seems to help patients in the early stages (1 and 2) of the disease.

While singing will not cure the symptoms, it can help strengthen the voice, which in turn can build confidence and help maintain those important social relationships.

When it comes to mental health, Frank has spent less time investigating the impact that performing music has on improving mood, but based on the research he has done he is convinced that this is another important application of music, especially when practiced as a group.

Performing music on your own does not appear to release oxytocin, says Frank, but singing in a group setting has shown to make a difference in brain chemistry.

That group setting and social connections are likely helpful for persons living with depression and anxiety.

Personally, Frank has varied tastes, from baroque to jazz to punk. He loves performing the music of some of his favourite singer songwriters, including Neil Young, Elvis Costello, and Tom Waits.

One last fun fact – while Frank is familiar with the whole concept of ‘Baby Einstein’ and listening to classical music in utero, he’s not convinced that the classical part is necessary.

According to the research, it’s the arousal properties of music that are beneficial, but not classical music above and beyond other genres.

In other words, listen to classical music if you enjoy it, but classic rock works just fine, too.

Come learn more about Frank’s research ‘on music as medicine’ at the March 27th High Notes Gala for Mental Health.

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