Music Sooths the Savage Beast

The vast majority of the population gets tremendous fulfillment through music: some by writing it; some by playing it; some by listening to it. When other pleasures in life may become more difficult to access as our bodies age, music often remains a great source of pleasure although we may have to make modifications in the way we enjoy it. According to a good friend of ours, Karen Skipper, owner of Orange Coast Music Therapy ( and a Neurologic Music Therapy Fellow, music can be used to provide great pleasure for all people and also to help people who have had strokes, traumatic brain injuries, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, Cerebral Palsy, Alzheimer’s disease, Autism, and other neurological diseases affecting cognition, movement, and communication such as Multiple Sclerosis and Muscular Dystrophy. Music can promote wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, express feelings, enhance memory, improve communication and just plain be lots of fun. Karen has been known to work with patients who are completely unresponsive and, within an hour or two, have them singing along as she plays her guitar. If music can do all that for an unresponsive person, it might be able to pull the rest of us out of a funk, add pleasure to our day, and help us make the final fifteen percent of our lives more soothes the savage beast

I have first-hand experience of how music can help relieve pain. I decided to learn to rollerblade a few years ago. I assumed it would be quite similar to roller-skating as I had done it in my youth. I was wrong. It is far more like ice-skating. Within minutes of strapping on the skates and taking off across the park, my ankles were wobbling and my insteps were burning. I kept at it for a few weeks thinking I would build up strength and the pain would diminish. It didn’t: if anything it got worse. I was also a great deal clumsier than I had been as a teenager when we would skate for hours to music at the roller rink. skating-ladyThen one day, I took my headphones and Walkman with me (Judging by the Walkman, this was clearly more than a few years ago, probably more like twenty years ago). When I put it on and started playing Bob Seger’s “Give Me That Old Time Rock and Roll,” suddenly I not only became less clumsy but the pain was reduced. When the song ended, the discomfort returned. I eventually developed a whole play list of music with a strong rhythm and a rousing melody and the pain diminished so much I began to enjoy skating. If I were to follow the lead of the woman in the photograph, I bet I could still manage to roller blade. At 72, I would definitely want to use a walker as she is doing as a safety measure.

My husband and I both enjoyed music in our youth. Bill played the trumpet in the school band and then continued to play for pleasure throughout his adult life. He enjoyed it until a year ago when he finally lost the ability to play. Bill was a very good trumpet player. He had great tone quality and a natural ability but not as much music theory education as he would have liked. When we had a piano in the house, he and I would play duets. Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head was our best number. bill-playing-trumpetNo one would have hired us to play but we had great fun and our children joined in and sang with us. I knew just enough to be dangerous on the piano and had sung in the high school acapella choir. Mediocre would be the most appropriate word to describe my musical talents but I still enjoyed it thoroughly and those musical events helped instill a love of music in our children.

When Bill was 71, we began singing with a wonderful group called the Tremble Clefs. (Yes, the spelling is correct; the group was made up of people with Parkinson’s disease whose hands often trembled and they had a sense of humor when it came to naming the group.) The above-mentioned Karen Skipper directs the group and they are absolutely wonderful. By this I don’t mean that they will win any Grammys but they actually sound very good and the singing helps them retain their vocal abilities and improves their ability to swallow and to articulate words. Karen graciously found ways to incorporate trumpet solos into the program to give Bill a chance to play on occasion. She finds ways to include everyone’s musical skills. For most of the people who attend, it is the high point of their week. If you have any doubts about the therapeutic abilities of music, take a look at the comments on the Tremble Clefs’ Facebook page at the following URL:

At any practice session of the Tremble Clefs, you will see at least 15 walkers, several wheelchairs, and lots of canes. Some of the participants have to face major challenges just to get ready to attend the practice. tc-awareness-concertBut we all have a wonderful time once we get there and the group does performances throughout the year to wildly appreciative audiences. Anyone who thinks that old age or infirmity make it impossible to get out and enjoy making music should watch the video of this group in action at the following link:

The best part about music is that listening to it is almost as good as making it. I do know of a few people with perfect pitch who can’t enjoy listening to music that isn’t flawless. But I also know two people with perfect pitch who can still enjoy their third grader’s musical holiday show at school. I always envied people with perfect pitch but if that natural talent or professional-quality musical skills ruin the enjoyment of less than perfect music then I wouldn’t envy that at all.

Clearly, when it comes to listening to music, attending a live performance of wonderful musicians is the ultimate experience. If your budget allows it and you have the ability to attend such concerts, doing so will greatly increase the pleasure you experience in the final fifteen percent of your life. Don’t let some aches and pains stop you. The effects of the music guarantee that these pains will decrease as you listen. If mobility issues or financial issues make attendance at live performances impossible, don’t let those issues stop you from receiving the benefits of great music regularly. bose-speakerThis last year, as Bill became unable to play his trumpet and to attend the Tremble Clefs’ sessions, we invested in a light–weight, high-quality speaker that could be moved from room to room, operate wirelessly off our Wi-Fi network, and could bring in radio stations from all over the world as well as allow us to play music of any kind from the internet via our computer or other mobile devices. It is one of the best investments we have ever made.

We are living proof that listening to music does increase memory power and communication. Bill and I have wonderful conversations about the music we have just heard any time we use our new music system. Memories of when we originally heard each musical piece are discussed, the emotions brought up by the music are expressed, and we almost always end up adding exercise to our day by, at a minimum, swaying to the music or tapping our toes and, at a maximum, dancing to it. While great music can stimulate both happy and sad emotions, we have never ended one of our musical sessions without feeling great pleasure at the experience. I would love to hear some of your experiences that were brought about by music and about how it has affected your lives.

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