Pre-pandemic—when I used to leave the house—I would occasionally sing at nursing homes with my partner, Janet, on piano. We played jazz standards for a very captive audience at a Memory Care unit serving senior men and women—nearly all in wheelchairs and most suffering from severe dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.
But, once in a while, something magical would happen. I would start singing a classic from the great American songbook, like “Dream a Little Dream” or “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and, suddenly, a woman who just moments earlier seemed completely lost to the world would come alive. A smile creeping over her face, she would sing along, even clap to the beat, as if dormant neurons were firing again.
That’s the power of music and memory in action.
Scientists and researchers have long studied the effects of music on cognitive brain functioning as we age. But, how can music help those of us—to quote J.D. Salinger in his short story For Esme–with Love and Squalor—“with all our f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact?”
Turns out…quite a lot.
Your Brain on Music
“Music taps into the whole brain,” said Dr. Jonathan Burdette, MD, a radiologist and professor at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “It affects so many networks.”
Music is much more than an auditory experience; it also affects your motor system, which controls physical movement, cognitive memory, emotions, and stress response. “Basically your brain is on fire when you hear music,” said Burdette.
Burdette explained that listening to music you enjoy can positively impact your Default Mode Network (DMN), a large-scale brain network that influences mind-wandering and self-referential thinking. Some research has shown that decreased activity in your DMN can actually improve cognition and reduce ruminative thinking, which is a common symptom of depression and anxiety.
In Burdette’s own research, he studied how subjects’ brains responded to listening to three types of music: songs they loved, songs they felt neutral about, and songs they actively didn’t enjoy. He then recorded the effects of each type of song on the DMN via MRI, or brain scan.
The findings were clear. Listening to music we love, especially music that evokes positive memories of our childhood and youth, alters connectivity between many different areas in our DMNs, which makes us feel good.
“One of the stressors right now for everyone is the unknown future,” said Burdette. “But music allows you to navigate this. It’s a link between past, present, and future....It allows us to know who we are. It gives us self-awareness and helps us know our place in the world."
Doctor’s Orders: Listen to Music
Feeling anxious and overwhelmed? Burdette recommends listening to your favorite music, especially music you loved from age 10 to 30, which was a period of intense brain development and hormonal activity. That’s why music from our past makes us nostalgic and emotional—and why therapy for Alzheimer’s patients often includes playing music from their adolescence and young adulthood.
So, next time you go for a walk, turn off the news, and turn on your favorite music. You just might start feeling better right away.
Music also positively affects the automatic processes of the body: your heartbeat, breathing, and your parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for rest and relaxation). Since listening to peaceful music can help bring us into a meditative state, I've created a playlist featuring some of the music and mantras that soothe and comfort me when I’m spinning out of control and degenerating into catastrophic thinking.
Many, but not all, of these mantras come from the practice of Kundalini Yoga. Other songs are in English, but bring comfort to me during these uncertain times. If a certain mantra resonates with you, try meditating in Easy Pose (Sukhasana), hands resting comfortably on your knees or holding a mudra of your choice, while listening to it. If it helps, do a few minutes of Box Breathing (Sama Vritti Pranayama) to ground and center you before you begin.
To chill out before bedtime, try Legs-Up-The-Wall Pose for 15-20 minutes while listening to a peaceful chant or song from the list of mantras below. To feel even more deeply relaxed, take a hot bath before you do this pose.
Also known as the Tryambakam Mantra, this beloved mantra is a verse from the Rigveda, a collection of ancient Vedic hymns. Sometimes described as a “death-conquering mantra,” it is beneficial to mental, emotional, and physical health.
Written by Guru Gobind Singh, the warrior saint, the last of the 10 gurus in the Sikh lineage, this mantra activates your higher chakras to give you the power to lift yourself out of depression and anger, dissolving all challenges and erasing fear.
Humee Hum Tumee Tum Wahe Guru
This mantra celebrates “oneness,” reminding us that we are all connected to source and to one another. If you feel isolated and disconnected from others, try listening to this mantra.
Ra Ma Da Sa Sa Say So Hung
The ultimate “healing” mantra in Kundalini Yoga, “Ra ma da sa sa say so hung” taps into the energy of the sun, moon, earth, and infinity to bring healing to yourself and others. Imagine projecting the energy of this mantra to those currently suffering from COVID-19.
Referred to as the Maha Mantra (great mantra), the popular Hare Krishna mantra is from the Vaishnava Upanishad. It contains the three Sanskrit names of the Supreme Being: Hare, Krishna, and Rama (Unlike traditional Hinduism, the Hare Krishna movement is monotheistic). Use this mantra is to awaken the soul and unite with God.
Jai Te Gung
Also written by the 10th Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh, this mantra is said to remove negativity and illuminate darkness.
Guru Ram Das
Known as the “miracle mantra” in Kundalini Yoga, this mantra channels Guru Ram Das, the fourth in the lineage of Sikh gurus. It’s known to open the heart and bring healing.
This is a mantra for inner peace and going with the flow. It will help you find a state of non-resistance so that you can receive blessings from the universe.
See also 13 Major Yoga Mantras to Memorize