The Utter Joy And Transformative Effect Of Listening To Music

Light Diffused spray musical note in green

I know, I know. You don’t need me telling me you about the utterly transformative effect that music (as little as 15 minutes a day) can have on our lives, releasing dopamine and decreasing our cortisol levels. It made me wonder over Christmas how much we over complicate our lives with mindfulness apps and other long-winded ways of de-stressing (getting in a car, forking out for childcare) when really, there’s nothing a long walk, a pair of headphones and a bit of sunshine  wouldn’t sort out.

Since the year dot, music has been a way to connect, communicate, explore and address what it is to be human. It transports us to different worlds – or at least away from the present. Anyone who listens regularly to music they enjoy will know of its ability to calm, soothe, console, motivate and uplift – how truly soul-soaring it can feel.

Music’s ability to heal has also been recognised: most recently the encouraging research of sound frequencies shattering cancer cells but surely, it also explains why sound bowls are on the rise (yup, I was sceptical too but 40 minutes at the new Re: Mind studio in Victoria, London had me sleeping better than I had in weeks and raring to tackle the day ahead).

For Denise Leicester, founder of the highly addictive spa brand ila and ilapothecary (if you don’t know it, check it out pronto), voice and music have always been central to her development of award-winning treatments for the past decade.

Building on this, she created Soul Medicine where she researched the impact of particular music and sounds with several doctors collating her findings from from clinically controlled studies. The result? Four tracks produced in collaboration with composer Tom Simenauer which, without wishing to get too technical are based on a 432 H frequencies. By simply listening to these tracks, it has been clinically proven that they help to decrease stress, promote well-being and cellular balance. Launched last May by Gill, this includes music for Being Held, Being Present, Being Loved and Being Lifted.

Of course, there is no right or wrong sort of music. And anyway, how do you tackle a subject as vast as music without sounding trite. Increasingly in my dotage, I’ve found myself turning to classical music. I did not grow up in a house that was remotely musical although as per all good Chinese Tiger mothers, piano playing –regardless of any apparent talent – was enforced from an early age.

By 15 I had fallen for the sound of the viola de gamba, specifically from the film, Tous les Matins du Monde, set in 17th century France and with a dashing Guillaume Depardieu to lust over. There was unrequited love aplenty, good hair and a heroine who hung herself. It chimed with my interest in French art house cinema or really, just trying to be cooler than I was, along with the start of a two decade Gauloises Blondes habit.

It has been an utter joy in the past five years to rediscover this music again. Like an adult coming to a classic novel but with better life perspective. And incidentally, listening to the late Baroque period, is supposed to do wonders for your focus and memory according to clinical studies which were carried out by Stamford University School of Medicine.

Anyone wishing to embark on their own classical music odyssey or who needs a little guidance could do no better than turning to Clemency Burton-Hill, BBC Radio 3 presenter, author and journalist who in her book, ‘Year of Wonder’ takes the ‘poem/story a day’ arc and applies it to music.

It is not supposed to be an exhaustive encyclopedia of the classical canon: rather, a treasure trove of the music that she loves the most, from the medievalist Hildegard of Bingen to the millennial, Alissa Firsova who was born in 1986, and a means of de-mystifying  both the music itself and something about the composer who wrote it.

And I’m totally with her when she says that without wishing to sound crazy, she believes that music holds the mystery of being alive. That these pieces become friends, they become teachers, magic carpets even. That in the company of the greatest music, she feels recognised, seen, held. They are engines of empathy which allow us to travel without moving into other lives, other ages, other souls.

Burton-Hill says whether you believe in a God or not, we all have our spiritual touchstones: to be human is to be awe-inspirable. We do not remain indifferent to certain experiences- watching a child be born, a parent die, an ocean at night, a sky full of stars. We all have a need for enchantment, a capacity for awe, a hunger for wonder. For people of all faiths or none, this music can contain all of that and more. It’s dipping a toe into a world you may or may not be familiar with and one that I guarantee will set you off on a whole other journey of discovery – a voyage through the ages of literature, history and art as well.  Several people I have interviewed in the past year have told me how beautiful music makes them well up.

For me personally, that ‘welling–up’ music is by Bach. I don’t say this with any sort of intellectual pretension, just really that I find his extraordinarily vast oeuvre awe-inspiring. It blows my mind daily. And that’s before even getting into the technical genius of his compositions. There’s his St Matthew’s Passion which I am borderline obsessed with and which got me through months of the baby blues, the heart-soaring effect of the Brandenburg concertos, Glen Gould’s version of the Goldberg variations is wonderfully meditative while the amazing John Eliot Gardiner cantata recordings are on a lot.

Calming, motivating and inspiring, I’m also in utter awe of how Bach gives his staunch Lutheran faith such a dynamic physical form. Because whether you believe in a God or not, it’s quite inspiring to see what a belief feels like. It’s a devotion to something purer, better, higher – a way of elevating the every day. A solo instrument if I want something quieter, and more contemplative or otherwise utterly joyous choral work if I am feeling more expansive.

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