Why Classical Music and its Neurochemical Cascade is Good for People with MS

closeup violin being played

When I drive along the freeway in heavy Sydney traffic, there are two things I need.

First, air conditioning. I need to stay cool to stay calm. The second thing I need is classical music. The relaxing, Baroque kind. Or piano sequences.

And then I breathe slowly. Everything in the world moves at a different pace — the pace of an elegant French film.

All cultures around the world use music. If you love classical music, you’ll understand why it’s a key part of life, ritual, and enjoyment.

Classical music helps us make physical improvements

Jennifer Powell, A health writer with multiple sclerosis describes music as a “spiritual experience.” I completely agree.

 Jennifer uses music specifically to help her with pain, anxiety and sadness.

Music has the power to transport us. Smell and music have the incredible ability to recapture back to certain experiences and memories. The smell of lavender sends me back  to when I was seven. Music has a similar effect to position me into a time and place, and a positive emotional experience.

There’s a reason for that. The same part of the brain that controls how we process senses is partly responsible for storing emotional memories, according to LiveScience.com

Jennifer describes to Multiplesclerosisnewstoday how she uses the music in the same way “she would use guided imagery”. She follows the melodies and notes. Through the use of a metronomic pattern, she has been able to use music as a therapeutic tool with the aid of her neurologist. This has helped her improve her walking (she suffers ‘drop foot’).

Playing the piano also helps her dexterity. The rhythm and of specifically chosen pieces helps the fingers play more naturally and as one part of a whole body and mind experience. It’s a lovely story.

If you’re like me and can strum a few chords of guitar and pluck the odd note, they say it’s never too late to start learning. But for now, I like to listen.

neon sign reads you are what you listen to

It gives catharsis and positive emotional experiences

Music is delivered via sound waves. When you listen to the sound waves of classical music, it produces dopamine. Classical music and its attendant dopamine elicits a positive emotional experience.

These emotional events modulate cognitive processes. It prevents stress hormones from being released. Like Jennifer, I find music highly cathartic. It helps unclog and re-experience feelings of tenderness, triumph, joy, and sadness. Then release those feeling so I can move on, a little lighter.

Feeling relaxed and unstressed helps our thinking and memory.  That is been shown in a number of studies, including this one.

It strengthens and protects our brains

If you were to put someone in a machine and scan them singing, large areas of their brains activate.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Take the word of Professor Sarah Wilson who is from the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne. She scans singers!

“Music activates the reward network. It releases dopamine, the feel-good chemical of the brain,” she says.

Like physical exercise, singing gives our brains a good workout and has neuroprotective benefits.

Listening to classical music reduces the level of blood cortisol. It helps relieve anxiety, relax us, and helps us sleep.  It helps to heal wounds and generate blood vessels.

If you want to start incorporating classical music into your life, Greta Bradman has the answer.

Both a psychologist and radio presenter on ABC Classic shows, Greta shows us five ways we can incorporate classical music into our lives for better mental health and happiness.

ballet dancer

It helps improve sleep and reduce depression

That blessed past-time. I love my sleep. Nine hours a night. Ten, if I can. I’m in bed around 8pm and the kids wake me up around six in the morning. Without it, the black dogs of depression start skulking my way. Let me just go ahead and link the two: depression and poor sleep.

Sleep is one thing so crucial to our mental health. Post-natal depression in new mothers (and fathers) happens alongside  sleep-deprivation. This article  also think so.

I love this study of people with depression who listened to Indian classical music. The findings were that it was as effective as a sleeping tablets.

In a hospital, young people (aged 19 to 28) with sleep problems were split into three groups by a team of nurses.

Before sleep time, one group listened to classical music for 45 minutes. One group had an audiobook. The control group had nothing.

The group that listened to 45 minutes of classical music before sleep had improved sleep quality.  The effect wasn’t shared by the control group or audio book listening group.

Another nursing-led study investigated chronic pain and depression. It found music resulted in lower pain and depression in those who listened to those who didn’t.


video game

A lot of people drive in peak traffic listening to music. Quite often it’s ‘chainsaw music’ and driving is a game of war. For a lot of newly licensed teenagers, driving is a video game. There’s adrenaline, speed, and danger.

While the car is transporting them through the city,  the music is transporting them into a heady arcade rally of opportunism and near misses. Respect. I remember zooming around delivering pizzas — our little red Diahatsu Charade pumping with Primus, and a mix that was unlistenable to anyone over 30.

Im just the same now.  Driving is the chance to conduct a symphony.

Fluidly navigate heavy traffic. Make dreamy, drifty lane changes. The tinkling string of green lights. Harmonious blending into motorways.

Two hours on the freeway feels like an energising twenty minutes. Time passes differently. The drama is all there, but it’s gentle. It’s emotional, cathartic, and quite a bit titillating.

The paradigm shift of a tree change


Tree change for a higher quality of life

A few years ago we were in Sydney. The traffic woke us. The buses roared below our apartment. We drank too much. We worked too much. One day our rent went up and I said ‘I have a house’.

That’s not to say we passively drift with the breeze and end up wherever we end up. In fact, we have the rudder and direct the flight path with earnestness, as well as lightness.

Right now the carpet is hovering over the meadows of asphodel. By that, I mean we have a heavenly life in a country village. We are two hours train ride from Sydney. We neither make nor need a lot of money. Yet we are veritably bathed in riches.

Revealing you are going

When you first move to the country —outside a metropolitan city — many people you leave behind think you’re having a tree change. And that a tree change is a sign of weakness. And that it won’t last. They don’t say it, because that would be rude. But that’s what they think.

They see the pursuit of a humble, quaint, and frankly boring existence with a backyard. 

They might even become patronising. Couldn’t cope with the city? Toss ambition to the wind and opt out of life. 

People have interesting reactions. Bemusement. Disbelief. Puzzlement. Disappointment. Envy. Curiosity. Rejection.

What you are doing is confronting. It offends sensibilities. It’s a middle finger to the man and the hapless followers of the man. It defies the convention of work. Of pain. Of doing-what-we-have-always-done-because-that’s-what-we-have-always-done.

Have pity.

When you shine a light on dysfunction, it hurts the eyes a bit.

A new mindset

Here’s the thing. Escaping to the country is not a tree change. It’s a Paradigm Shift.

It’s a move from  ‘How much can I make?’ to ‘How little do we need?’

Our two-bedroom cottage is like a mansion to city visitors.

We have trees in our garden. We pick fruit on the street when we leave the house.

We walk our kids to school and preschool.

We make boats from sticks and leaves and race them along the gutters during the rain.

We wear gumboots and go rainstomping.

Everyone knows us by name.

We have all had COVID and received deliveries of cake, soup, craft, puzzles, and chocolate.

There are four cafes in our main street. We go to each of them regularly.

We all sleep in one bed, most nights.

I work from home in the garage. We renovated it and made it a nice little retreat pad. When people stay over, this is where they sleep. There’s a nice little Japanese-style bathroom and laundry on the end, down a step.

This is the meaning of life. And these are kind of obvious things, are they not?

Your values, perhaps for the first time, become very clear. You see what is truly important: Your family. Your relationships. Contributing to your community. Eating well. Love. Maintaining your body in good condition. Allowing your spirit to frequently soar.

But when you’re busy, you forget them. They don’t really land with you. You know they’re the most important things in life in your head, but you don’t make any emotional connection with the truth of it. Until you go slow.

And then you are struck by how much certainty you have that these are by far the important things in life.

In late capitalism, we are kept very busy. Kids. Work. Shopping. Football. Culture. News. We don’t have time to think. We’re very active.

It’s a great gift to yourself to go slowly. Cut back to the basics. Go a bit Walden for a while. The benefits can’t be truly appreciated until you do it.

A Positive Narrative helps with MS

person standing by sea with red umbrella

Quite a few years ago, I had an MS attack and needed a cane to walk. I was devastated. My friend, Bronski, said that was so cool. 

“How is that cool?” I demanded

“It’s sexy”, she said.

“It’s not sexy!”

“Yeah, Melody Gardot,” she stated. “It is!”

Melody Gardot is a sexy jazz singer — to whom I bear no resemblance — who uses a walking cane because of an injury. 

Hm. I thought about it.

I suppose I had the choice. Feel like a young invalid. Or feel sexy to someone.

Okay, I decided. I can do this.

Smile, for heaven’s sake

Here I am, venturing out with my stick. Surprise! I am young! Look, I’m sexy. It was like a joke. Ridiculous. But it made me smile. 

When you have multiple sclerosis, life is uncertain. Every day we wake up, we don’t know what life is going to spray us with. Our default mindset is to be defensive. To feel pessimistic and go negative comes naturally. It’s a self-defence mechanism. 

catching thought. Woman with burry two head montage

The problem with this is if we visualise a bad outcome, we aren’t surprised when it happens. Things that we focus on, tend to magnify. 

Optimism is a learned behaviour. It doesn’t come naturally. We all start with a default mode of negative.

To find Optimism, we have to let our Executive function take control. 

Every day, I need to train my brain to catch itself going negative. Just catch it. Be aware of it. I don’t need to be radically optimistic. Or upbeat. Just catch it. When you get good at catching negative spin, you get good at spinning it too. 

Imagine what good could come out of this? If I can’t change that, how about I do this

I’m not suggesting you are anything other than completely honest with yourself. 

Be your own best friend

What I’m advocating is to be kind and gentle. And be your own best friend. 

What would a best friend do? They would probably make you laugh. And they’d make you a cup of tea. They would rummage around in your junk drawer of negativity and try to find something positive. 

I truly believe that practicing positive thinking makes your life better.  Hand in hand with this, being careful of the words you choose is also important to me. 

Choose your words

For example, I can say my untidy house looks like a disaster. Or I can say the untidiness is irksome. I can say I feel furious about something. Or I can say I feel peeved, a bit put out. Rather irritated. Downplay the drama. Keep cool.

Multiple sclerosis is an inflammatory response. Don’t get inflamed by little things. I try not to flare my temper if I don’t have to. Usually, I don’t have to. 

Storm breaks out before the picnic? We can’t control the weather, but we can buy the most gorgeous red umbrella!

Missed the train? We can’t avoid a two-hour wait at the train station, but, joy! We can get stuck into that book! 

People who take a positive view of things are happier and healthier than those of us who don’t. It is pretty amazing what you can achieve when you back yourself and believe it just might be possible. Even if you only get halfway there, it’s better than the alternative.

It makes you better looking

And another thing. The more I practice a positive narrative, the stronger my resemblance to Melody Gardot becomes. Consider that for a while.