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Brain exercise
Sound therapy: Beats and rhythms sometimes relax body muscles of the listeners

Moshing at a gig or attending a classical concert aren’t just aurally stimulating ' they can benefit your health, too. According to new research, listening to Beethoven or ‘Badly Drawn Boy’ may help heart disease and stroke patients, as well as people suffering from stress.

Earlier this month, British and Italian scientists found that meditative tunes helped to slow breathing and circulation, and that the effects were particularly positive among those who are musically trained, as they synchronised their breathing with the musical phases.

A study undertaken in Taiwan earlier this year found that listening to gentle music for 45 minutes in the evening makes for a restful night’s sleep. And this summer, Malcolm Hilton, an ear, nose and throat specialist at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, began to trial a singing course that aims to tackle snoring and obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), a condition that can cause people to stop breathing during deep sleep. The course features songs and vocal exercises that tone up the weak muscles in the soft palate and upper throat that are often to blame.

“It would be wonderful to be able to offer patients with snoring or sleep apnoea problems a self-help alternative to surgery or having to wear a nasal mask every night,” says Hilton.

Joining a choir helps to tone up the body, as well as the brain. “Singing exercises the abdominal and intercostal muscles, and stimulates the circulation,” says Helen Furness, a professional choral trainer who leads a ‘Singing for Health’ programme for over-fifties in Midlothian. “I teach the group deep-breathing exercises, which enables them to make full use of their lungs.”

At the National Society for Epilepsy’s (NSE) therapy centres, music is used in several settings.

“We play structured pieces that are 60 beats per minute ' primarily Mozart and baroque ' in our art area; and in our sensory room, too, in combination with massage and visualisation, to help people to focus and relax,” says Lorna Bailey, manager of the NSE Chalfont Centre’s therapy rooms.

“If they can remain calm, stress-related seizures occur less frequently. We also encourage residents, particularly those who can’t communicate in the usual way, to let off steam by playing percussion instruments.

It is a very good means of self-expression and gives patients an identity that is not associated with their condition. I have found that some patients become so engaged in the music that they don’t have fits.”

If you’re happy and you know it Just like a game of tennis or a swim, singing releases endorphins into the bloodstream, making you feel positive. “I run groups for people who feel depressed, isolated or in need of stress relief,” says Maggie ’Connor, a health-care musician at St Mary’s Hospital on the Isle of Wight. “ME sufferers, cancer patients, carers, disabled people and the elderly come to my classes, to find their voice. The physical warm-up and breathing exercises help them to relax, and singing in harmony with others brings self-confidence, empowerment and a sense of team spirit.”

Many experts believe we are born musical. “The inner part of the ear is the only organ to reach the full adult size at 24 weeks,” says Dr Michel Odent, director of the Primal Health Research Centre in London. “Music provides the foetus with sensory stimulation, and singing improves the emotional state of a pregnant woman, which can influence the growth and development of the baby in the womb.”

Song can help develop the bond between mother and child, too. “Babies recognise melodies earlier than they do language,” says ’Connor. “That is why a mother traditionally sings a lullaby to a baby at bedtime, as a signal that it’s time to sleep. Playing music and singing to a child also promotes language and cognitive development, coordination and listening skills.”

Maldon & South Chelmsford Primary Care Trust has just launched a tuneful new project to improve the quality of life of local children with asthma.

“Asthma is a serious condition for many youngsters,” says Sarah Southerby, the PCT’s healthy living coordinator. “The ‘Huff and Puff’ project holds innovative classes using song and art as mediums for helping children to control their breathing.”

The workshops include simple songs, rhythms and breathing techniques, to teach the children not to panic when they suffer shortness of breath.

“A recent study undertaken in Denmark found that singing traditional songs to people with dementia ' including Alzheimer’s ' helped to reduce agitated behaviour, increase communicative engagement and bring into balance over- or under-arousal,” says Prof. Tony Wigram, head of PhD Studies in Music Therapy at Aalborg University in Denmark.

This may be because the part of the brain that recognises and enjoys music is less affected by dementia than other areas.

“Everyone benefits from the feel-good factor that the games provide,” says Rebecca Ledgard, joint director of the ‘Singing Medicine’ project. “Taking part helps children cope better with their illness and distracts them from the pain, trauma and boredom of being in hospital. The activities stimulate the brain ' particularly among those who have suffered a head injury ' and encourage children to get out of bed and play an instrument or join in.”

The Daily Telegraph

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