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Exploring the connection between our brains, our moods and music


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Have you ever wondered why a piece of music makes you feel a certain way?

Well, as part of our Student Reporting Labs' ongoing look at youth mental health, student journalists John Barnes and Brigitte Bonsu explore the connection between our brains, music and our moods.

That's for our arts and culture series Canvas.

John Barnes: Hey, Brigitte. How was your day?

Brigitte Bonsu: I don't know. I feel like I never have time for myself.

John Barnes: Haven't you been playing the cello?

Brigitte Bonsu: No. How about you?

John Barnes: My day wasn't too bad. I was actually playing this really peaceful and calming song last night.

Brigitte Bonsu: I know how that feels. I always felt that way when I played the cello.

John Barnes: Wait. You were there the whole time?

So, how does rhythm affect our mood? That is, why does me talking like this feel different emotionally than me talking like this?

DR. Bruce D. Perry, Northwestern University: That probably starts in utero, when the little fetus is developing.

There's this rhythmic input. Our maternal heart rate, the aorta and the heart sort of tap on the diaphragm. And so three different sensory routes, vibration, touch and sound, have this syncopated rhythm that is continuous.

And so the brain essentially comes to connect pattern, repetitive, rhythmic, sensory input with being safe and regulated.

John Barnes: That may be why we pace around before giving a big speech or tap our feet to a rhythm when we're nervous.

Brigitte Bonsu: So, what about lyrics? How do they affect us?

Dr. Adenike Webb, Temple University: When I work with clients to write songs, I often start with the words first with them before we get into the music.

Brigitte Bonsu: This is Dr. Webb and Dr. Thomas, music therapists I spoke to about the significance of lyrics.

Dr. Adenike Webb: You know, when there's a song that's like, I am so sad right now, I don't have words for it, but this singer does, or reminding us we're not alone in whatever were feeling.

Brigitte Bonsu: So how do we use music to make us feel better in our daily lives?

John Barnes: Try taking breaks to do little rhythmic activities throughout the day.

DR. Bruce D. Perry: Calligraphy or doodle in a lecture, graphic use of your hands, it's rhythmic, and it has the same rhythms as conversation, the same rhythms as being rocked as a baby.

Brigitte Bonsu: And you can also try what Dr. Thomas calls the tunnel playlist.

DR. Natasha Thomas, Purdue University: A lot of times, in our, like, anxiety spirals or depression episodes, there's a moment when you know you are going into it.

Then we think about, OK, when you're in the tunnel, when you're in those deepest, darkest moments, what music can help affirm where you are and not make you feel like there's pressure to get out of it, but just sort of be with you?

John Barnes: Our last tip, try playing some music yourself.

When the pandemic happened, I spent a lot more time learning guitar and songwriting. Music can help us make sense and relate to events, and when we know that other people are going through it. So it kind of helps us feel seeing. When everything comes together perfectly, it's just euphoria.


John Barnes: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Brigitte Bonsu: When I play and I really focus on a note or a section in a piece, I feel like, actually, I play 10 times better, and I really like that experience. and it just makes me feel more empowered.

Music lets me know that I can get better.

Judy Woodruff: Some of us would never play an instrument, but it is so inspiring to watch these young people.

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