closeup violin being played

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

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

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, 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 pastime. 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 thinks so.

I love this study of people with depression who listened to Indian classical music. The findings were that it was as effective as 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 audiobook 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 Daihatsu Charade pumping with Primus, and a mix that was unlistenable to anyone over 30.

I’m 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.

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