Why do people instinctively turn to a favorite piece of music to help them unwind at the end of a difficult day? Because, say therapists, music is nature's tranquilizer.
Though musical perception itself remains imperfectly understood, the beneficial effect of certain rhythms and melodies is too obvious to be disputed.
But what kind of music works best to help people relax?
Until recently, this has been a debate with adherents in several camps, including soft classical music; music concocted of chirping crickets, babbling brooks and other sounds found in the wild; or just any music that suits the listener's taste.
Now a number of contemporary composers are standing the concept of therapeutic music on its ear.
Matching considerable creative skills with laboratory studies they're composing music scientifically designed to relieve stress, reduce mental fatigue and encourage relaxation.
Far from languishing on the back pages of health magazines, their compositions are selling to an increasingly mainstream audience. The result may be a new direction for entertainment as well as medicine: designer music.
A desire to change his own behavior led composer Steven Halpern, the founder and president of Sound RX in San Anselmo, Calif., to experiment with new methods of composition.
"Being a Type-A person already starting to burn out at an early age, I wanted something that was legal and non-addictive, and that I could do myself to help keep my own health and sanity," he says.
He began composing pieces without a strong central beat, wavelike music that depended very little on melody. When he had something he felt truly helped him unwind, he took his new works to the laboratory.
"That very first experimental day changed my life because I knew this wasn't just a figment of my imagination," Mr. Halpern says. "It was really something quite different in the field of music."
The play of music on the human spirit is an old story. King Davi resorted to his harp to cure Saul of "evil spirits." Sirens lured unwary Greek sailors to their doom with the sweetness of their singing. Both the Greek Orpheus and the Scandinavian Odin could move inanimate objects with the beauty of their music.
Pythagoras, the philosopher and mathematician from the sixth century B.C., is often credited with founding the practice of musictherapy.
The contemporary discipline has its roots in Veterans Administration hospitals during the 1940s, when volunteer musicians performed for wounded soldiers to such positive effect that the VA promptly instituted music-therapy programs.
Today, more than 5,000 registered music therapists nationwide use music to soothe and heal many psychological and physiological problems.
Besides its therapeutic value in working with patients with head injuries, chronic pain and poor motor control, and in communicating with autistic children and others with emotional disorders, music is also an effective tool in developmental programs. It can, for example, boost learning ability and aid in the exploration of the nature of consciousness in healthy people.
"There's a lot more to music therapy than just listening to music to relieve stress," says Nancy Ditmer, an associate professor of music and coordinator of the music-therapy program at the College of Wooster in Ohio.
Students enrolled in this program pursue a four-year course including credits in psychotherapy, administration and musical theory, and a six-month internship before becoming eligible for a license.
"In many cases, it's being actively involved in either creating music or performing it -- not in the sense that a band or an orchestra performs for an audience, but playing on rhythm instruments or singing," Ms. Ditmer says. "It's the use of music to change behaviors."
Mr. Halpern, who has a degree in the psychology of music studied many cultures to find rhythms and musical forms in harmony with his body.
Monitors testing brain waves and electrical resistance on the surface of the skin indicated that his music immediately transported the listener's brain into the alpha wave, a state of true relaxation.
Since then he has produced a number of therapeutic selections. "Comfort Zone," "Higher Ground" and "Spectrum Suite" are among the more popular.
Don G. Campbell, the founder and director of the Institute of Music, Health and Education in Boulder, Colo., was trained as a classical musician.
For several years he worked in Haiti and Tokyo and observed the use of music to achieve altered states of consciousness in both cultures.
A bout of illness and depression led Mr. Campbell, like Mr. Halpern, to blend science and aesthetics in pursuit of music that would be both therapeutic and beautiful.
"I realized that the patterns in music -- rhythmic, tonal and harmonic patterns -- changed heartbeat and respiration," Mr. Campbell says. "Later, through research, it became obvious that they affected muscle tone, skin temperature and brain-wave sequencings, and that sound was much more than what we heard. It was an energy that was received."
Mr. Campbell focused his research on isolating which type of music promoted relaxation; which rhythms and frequencies awakened and invigorated; and which sounds aided concentration and boosted learning ability. "Crystal Meditations" is currently his most popular release.
The Institute of HeartMath, a stress-management think tank in Boulder Creek, Calif., measures cardioelectricity and brain-wave patterns in a lab electronically networked to a recording studio.
"We were looking for certain patterns that were less stressful than others and that were consistent physiologically," says Howard Martin, the vice president of the institute. "Basically, we just took a deeper look at the power of music."
"Heart Zones," a CD co-produced last year by Mr. Martin and Doc Lew Childre, the founder and president of the institute and the composer of the music, shot to the top quarter of the Billboard charts and stayed there for months.
Appealing to heart, mind
The popularity of music tailor-made for relaxation or invigoratio is no accident. One conclusion suggested by the body's responses to various musical patterns is that the way people perceive music has a lot to do with the nature of its appeal.
"We're learning that the melodic part of music deals more with the time-space relationship of the left brain because it's speaking a language, whereas the tone of the music, which is like the music's vowel, affects the limbic system, the mid brain. And the rhythms of the music affect the hindbrain, the more autonomic part," Mr. Campbell says.
"I'm not saying that these are the parts of the brain that have auditory receptors. They are responsive to that auditory stimulation."
By downplaying the role of melody in his compositions, Mr. Halpern is able to bypass the music critic in the left brain that wants to analyze what it hears -- deciding who it sounds like, pigeonholing it by genre, passing judgment -- to produce music geared to relax just about anybody.
As a check of the heartbeat will show, the heart imitates any
external rhythm. It's the beat, not the sentiment, of martial strains that renders them so rousing, the near-absence of beat that puts the lull in lullabies.
Some of Mr. Halpern's test results made hash of the popular notion that whatever anyone enjoys aids relaxation. He maintains that while Western European classical music may bring profound enjoyment, it is structurally incapable of triggering a deep-relaxation response.
"We have been so conditioned to a certain pattern of sound that we create it ourselves," he says. "This creates stress in the body and mind -- the anxiety of waiting for the completion of the phrase. That stress and that tension, that anticipation, is built into the music form itself."
Harmony plus healing
All these musicians insist that their compositions be first an foremost good music -- harmonious, entertaining and easy to listen to. While music therapists may use their work as a professional tool, its potential applications are much wider. No one needs a prescription to benefit from these relaxing rhythms.
"We designed 'Heart Zones' so that it would not be something you had to sit in a quiet place to benefit from," Mr. Martin says. "People just aren't natured that way. We wanted it to be music that could be used interactively in daily life."
For drivers with long commutes, Mr. Martin says, music with a calming message is just what the doctor ordered. "If somebody has to deal with traffic jams, they can be losing energy if they constantly grumble and gripe through it.
"That kind of thing accumulates over time and people really do pay some dues of a mental and emotional nature, which affects them physiologically as well. 'Heart Zones' is not a miracle worker, but it does create an environment for people to make their own inner adjustments to what they have to go through."
Mr. Halpern recommends taking a tape of his music along to the doctor's or dentist's office to provide a soothing ambience. It can relax the doctor as well as the patient, and relaxed people tend to perform better.
Harnessing the power of music to meet specific therapeutic needs may be just the beginning. Current research into the tailoring of music for educational and business purposes suggests that these "designing" musicians are riding the wave of the future.
"The power of music to affect people's moods and attitudes has been obvious ever since there's been music," Mr. Martin says. "It's just time now, in the '90s, to start doing something more than letting it affect us randomly."
Matching creative skills with laboratory studies, a number of contemporary composers are creating music scientifically designed to relieve stress, reduce mental fatigue and encourage relaxation. Here are some offerings:
"Comfort Zone," "Higher Ground," "Spectrum Suite" and other selections by Steven Halpern are distributed by Audio and Video Productions.
They can be ordered directly from Sound RX at P.O. Box 151439, San Rafael, Calif. 94915; (415) 453-9800. Cassettes, $9.98; CDs, $14.98; add $3 for shipping and handling for the first item and $1 for each additional item.
* "Crystal Meditations" by Don Campbell is distributed by Spirit Music. It can be ordered directly from P.O. Box 2240, Boulder, Colo. 80306; (303) 443-8181. Cassettes, $10; CDs, $15; add $2 for shipping and handling.
* "Heart Zones" by Doc Lew Childre is distributed by LauriRecords and is available at major record outlets nationwide such as Sam Goody and HMV. Or call Ron Bollon at Laurie, (800) 344-8249, for the nearest locations.