The Riff
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The Riff

What’s So Great About Music?

What’s so great about music? Other than what each of us says about the ways it touches us personally, gives us a better quality of life, and the good and bad and always poignant memories it reaches for when we hear it… what’s so great about music? For instance, what does science say? Or philosophers and spiritualists? What do the smart people think?

Phil’s Cat, Andy Explores the World Between Two Guitars.

I was giving thought to ways I can point out the peripheral advantages of music and an article popped up about the benefits of music to patients of Alzheimer’s. My Pops, Bob Circle, suffered from Alzheimer’s and my mom, Lilias Circle, suffered from primary progressive aphasia, another form of dementia that left her unable to speak and only loosely aware of what was going on around her. Both of them were highly successful in their fields (economics and music), and enjoyed exciting social lives and prolific speaking careers around their work. This made it all the more difficult to watch each of them decline. But I have music. I got it from my mom. My dad taught me how to use it.

My dad’s first wife, Barbara Fisher-Circle died of breast cancer after a prolonged battle. During her illness, my dad was forced to bring home large sums of cash each week to pay for the home health care, while caring for their two children, my elder siblings. When I asked him how he got through it, he responded without hesitation:


Bob Circle sometime shortly after WWII, in which he served.

He knew Mozart’s story; how he suffered from alcoholism and was emotionally scarred by his father. He lived in constant poverty, and the thought that he was not understood by his contemporaries and in some cases may have been the victim of political conniving to destroy any chances he had at recognition, make it all the more tragic. He died painfully at a fairly young age of what historians now believe was trichinosis, a sickness brought on by parasites in pork, a favorite food of Amadeus. My dad found it amazing that with such a difficult life, the young composer could write such uplifting and beautiful music. Pops saw this as a sign of the power of music.

My mom, a pianist, concert alto, violist, producer, and music writer, obviously was in love with music. When her health deteriorated after my dad’s passing, she eventually decided to move back into assisted living after a stint in her own apartment. When it got to where she couldn’t speak and showed signs of dementia, the nurses would wheel her recliner to the nurses’ station and play classical music for her all day. She would just sit quietly, smiling. When I last saw her, two days after my marriage with Megan Corse, she managed to speak a very labored sentence to Megan while I was away checking on her room.

The Mod Squad: Lilias Circle (left) and Phil (lower right) with his siblings, circa 1974.

“Oh my,” she said, “I’m so happy for you both.”

Lilias Circle passed away quietly in her sleep just two weeks later. The nurses simply knew me as her “wandering minstrel,” a reference she shared with them from a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.

I share these same stories, in more detail, and more in my book.

I’m always looking for evidence of the importance of music beyond our philosophical ideals and spiritual feelings about it. In my head, I have files of factoids on music education, the malleable brain, and an imaginably annoying amount of personal anecdotes. They all point to why music is so great.

Here are some excerpts from an article I stumbled upon, about patients with brain injuries and mental health challenges, and some ways they respond positively to music:

Research has suggested benefits from music therapy for people with autism, depression, schizophrenia, brain injuries, and cancer. Newborns in intensive care have been found to gain weight faster when exposed to music.

For people recovering from a stroke, the rhythm of music can help them regain their gait. Those with aphasia, who’ve lost the ability to speak, sometimes can sing familiar songs, and some can eventually be taught to transition from singing to talking.

Such therapy, known as melodic intonation treatment, was used to help Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords recover her speech after she was shot in the head.

Researchers suspect this may be particularly useful for patients with damage to the left side of the brain, because music emphasizes use of the right side of the brain, providing a potential alternate route to develop new nerve pathways.

When I posted a link to this article on social media, I received a fair amount of positive responses and additives from my network. My friend and one-time musical collaborator, Mike Osuji from Nigeria responded, “In Igbo land where I come from music is used to calm the nerves of a crying baby and to wake up a slumbering Spirit.” I’m down with calming crying babies, but let’s see what kind of slumbering spirits we’re waking before trying that one.

I’ve gone and dug into a bunch of academic stuff over the years to support the idea that music is greater than a pastime. I feel compelled to make some points that might quiet the people who think music is a flakey pastime or a misuse of otherwise valuable time. You know the type; they’ll look down on a musician they meet randomly on the street, then head home to jam to their favorite tunes. I’d love for the connection to be made that the street musician or hobbyist is no different from the popular name, but for a collection of well-timed gigs and smart business. It’s all music. It’s all worthwhile. I’m just making sure I share as much ammunition for the full and thorough support of music as I can. So you can use it as quickly and perhaps even more effectively than I have. Let’s get to work. Here come the scientists…

The University of California Press published a study. Here’s their abbreviated fancy scientific talk:

The present study investigated whether the association between music lessons and intelligence is mediated by executive functions… These (set shifting, selective attention, planning, inhibition, and fluency) were assessed in 9 to 12-year-old children with varying amounts of music lessons. Significant associations emerged between music lessons and ALL of the measures of executive function. Executive functions mediated the association between music lessons and intelligence, with the measures of selective attention and inhibition being the strongest contributors to the mediation effect. Our results suggest that at least part of the association between music lessons and intelligence is explained by the positive influence music lessons have on executive functions, which in turn improve performance on intelligence tests.

Here’s my layman’s translation:

Students in the study focused better and were less inhibited, which led to better performance, thanks to music.

While my brain recovers, let me run down a few things I’ve known for some years now…

There are countless studies about the benefits of music education and how it enhances all other forms of education. Math and science have been a part of this discussion for a long time. Studies have often shown an improvement in math and science scores with music students. I recall one report from the 1990s that explained why the highest per capita math scores in the developed world were showing up in Hungary; every kid in every grade in every school was required to learn music. Their orchestras weren’t so bad, either. In some past cultures, music was taught as a science. Additionally, I’ve seen studies pointing to improved cognitive and analytical skills, and even one that said 66% of medical school students had studied music as undergrads. What has my own experience shown?

I’ve had myriad students who were diagnosed with various learning disabilities, which I prefer to call challenges in the spirit of removing the stigma often attached to them. What I focused on with these students was based on one kind of study in particular. When brain scans have been done on people while they played music, they’ve (the science folks) noted that the entire brain lit up. It showed activity across all regions. With most mental or physical activities, only a portion of the brain would light up in scans. This wide activity across the right and left brain indicated that new pathways could be found. In fact, the corpus callosum (the membrane between the right and left brain) has been found to be more developed in musicians. I’m no scientist, but I’ve read a lot and even inquired with scientists who were music students of mine (right now I’m teaching a neuroscientist). I read a story about a neurologist whose father had a stroke that killed the part of his brain used for walking. Instead of wasting time on physical therapy as his doctors wanted, the neurologist took her father through the processes of crawling, toddling, and then walking. Brain scans she did along the way indicated that new pathways were created through the areas of the brain that still functioned. What does this indicate to this excited musician? The answer to why students with learning challenges were able to “get around” their disabilities while learning guitar; The brain used the higher level of activity produced by playing an instrument to find new pathways, thus avoiding the tricky triggers that were the apparent cause of the cognitive disabilities. I watched my students’ grades in school increase without any apparent additional efforts on their part. I ran this all past a bass student of mine who was, literally, a brain surgeon. She confirmed the distinct possibility of this. She also explained a few other things that I share with students about practice. She also found bass a very challenging instrument. So there you go… if you’re struggling with mastering your instrument, even the brain surgeon does. I can’t speak for any rocket scientists, as of yet. Maybe I’ll open a studio near Cape Canaveral for winter lessons.

Another paper, by Taylor & Francis gave this summary in response to so many studies showing results in a few specific areas.

There is considerable interest in the potential non‐musical cognitive and academic benefits of music listening and instruction to children. This report describes three lines of research relevant to this issue, namely, the effects of: (1) focused music listening on subsequent task performance (the Mozart effect); (2) music instruction; and (3) background music listening. Research suggests that… Mozart effect studies… cannot be reliably demonstrated in children. In contrast, music instruction confers consistent benefits for spatiotemporal reasoning skills; however, improvements in associated academic domains, such as arithmetic, have not been reliably shown. Finally, background music may calm and focus children with special education needs, thereby enhancing learning… Overall, evidence for the non‐musical benefits of music listening and instruction is limited. The inherent value of music and music education should not be overlooked by narrowly focusing on cognitive and academic outcomes.

That last line is notable: The inherent value of music and music education should not be overlooked by narrowly focusing on cognitive and academic outcomes. First, it’s pretty funny that this is almost exactly what Taylor & Francis did with the conclusions they drew. But, it’s nice they left that final sentence for us to absolve science of thinking too hard. I guess they may be recommending we not feel like we need to show academic reasons for music education. How about we just enjoy it for what it is; music, an art form, a much loved and partaken-in creative performance art. As Joseph Campbell said, “our highest art form and the closest humans come to their gods.” (The Power of Myth)

While I actually am fine, even excited, with the scientific approach continuing to question things and dig more deeply, I want there to be a wider acceptance of what we’ve already come to see consistent evidence of. So, in addition to the examples I’ve shared and these excerpts from recent studies, I’m going to give you a list. Who doesn’t love a good list? Well, I’ve got a little list. This is courtesy of big pharma, no less! That’s right! They can’t possibly profit from this! So, quick, before they catch on and put a patent on it, copy this list down:

10 Health Benefits of Music

Courtesy of Pfizer (Thanks for the vaccine!)

  1. Improves mood. Studies show that listening to music can benefit overall well-being, help regulate emotions, and create happiness and relaxation in everyday life.
  2. Reduces stress. Listening to ‘relaxing’ music (generally considered to have slow tempo, low pitch, and no lyrics) has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety in healthy people and in people undergoing medical procedures (e.g., surgery, dental, colonoscopy). (My orthopedic surgeon played my music during surgeries.)
  3. Lessens anxiety. In studies of people with cancer, listening to music combined with standard care reduced anxiety compared to those who received standard care alone.
  4. Improves exercise. Studies suggest that music can enhance aerobic exercise, boost mental and physical stimulation, and increase overall performance.
  5. Improves memory. Research has shown that the repetitive elements of rhythm and melody help our brains form patterns that enhance memory. In a study of stroke survivors, listening to music helped them experience more verbal memory, less confusion, and better focused attention.
  6. Eases pain. In studies of patients recovering from surgery, those who listened to music before, during, or after surgery had less pain and more overall satisfaction compared with patients who did not listen to music as part of their care.
  7. Provides comfort. Music therapy has also been used to help enhance communication, coping, and expression of feelings such as fear, loneliness, and anger in patients who have a serious illness, and who are in end-of-life care.
  8. Improves cognition. Listening to music can also help people with Alzheimer’s recall seemingly lost memories and even help maintain some mental abilities. (Once again!)
  9. Helps children with autism spectrum disorder. Studies of children with autism spectrum disorder who received music therapy showed improvement in social responses, communication skills, and attention skills.
  10. Soothes premature babies. Live music and lullabies may impact vital signs, improve feeding behaviors and sucking patterns in premature infants, and may increase prolonged periods of quiet–alert states. (I was two months premature. I wonder if my mom, the musician, knew this.)

I didn’t see anything about side effects next to this list, but happiness and quality of life might be a couple of extraneous benefits.

So, what’s so great about music? Science and your medical providers apparently see some benefits. What about how it affects us at a deeper level?

I was running errands the other day and noticed an interesting thing. I stopped for gas, bought a Starbucks coffee, and picked up a couple of packages at the Amazon pick-up location; and not once was I required to speak with any humans. If I hadn’t stopped at Snappy Wash and had to pay the cashier, my solitude could have been maintained. Through this, I was reminded of some recent studies that have passed by my eyes while reading my dailies, that have talked about how disconnected and lonely Americans feel these days… more than ever before, they say. Then I got home and crawled in front of my computer and started the process all over again. I quickly realized there was a deafening silence in my studio, so I put on a CD. I like albums. I enjoy the on-going journey of the artist or group, the story they tell intentionally or not, and the continuity of a familiar vocal and/or instrumental style. I choose albums to listen to much like I pick a playlist; based on my mood or emotional needs in the moment. Now my space is not so empty. The voluminous sound of music fills my ears and keeps me motivated and working happily on the non-musical end of my work.

Music wasn’t available in a recorded format just slightly more than 100 years ago. My grandpa recorded his albums to shellac 78s in the 1920s. Before that were the wax cylinders. So, prior to that, we were only allowed music through its use in ceremony, in work songs, at live paid performances, courtesy of traveling troubadours, or thanks to the efforts of whomever in our household or group of friends might have a talent for it. My neighbors would be calling down to their front porches or parlors to share free singalongs every night, for instance. This means that we most likely went without the enjoyment of music far more often than we actually do today.

Once recorded music came into being, everything changed. At first, most people couldn’t afford the equipment needed to play it. But gradually it came into the mainstream and eventually entered every facet of our lives. Now, it’s attached to everything we own and accessible everywhere we go. Can you imagine going your entire workday without once hearing a song? What would happen to the mood of your favorite restaurant if they had no music piping in? Would you find walks and jogs as interesting without music in your earbuds? I suppose some of us could do without the musical choices in some places; the mall or our dentist’s office, perhaps? But think of it; Wherever we go there is music either provided or carried along.

When communities were smaller and more tightly and immediately connected, and the rest of the world was mostly very far away and less accessible, we had less music in our lives. Now, our communities have in many ways dissolved, or at the very least gone into constant flux or morphed into digital realms. The world has at once become very small, found at the other end of our internet connection; and an overwhelmingly large crowd of billions. Our response is that we can hardly live without music. When we experience a bad day, we don’t even have to wait until we’re home to enjoy our best musical choice to contend with it. And there, at our fingertips, our best friend, music, enters our space to satiate our emotional needs in the here and now… we hear it now.

As a musical artist and a hetero male, I suspect one of the reasons I picked up guitar initially was to “get chics,” but it didn’t take long for me to experience the exciting and more effective ways it allowed me to express things; Things that I otherwise constantly stumbled over in an awkward voice full of emotive disfluencies, and painful twitches of the head. I had a girlfriend when I was twenty who called me “Spock.” Yikes. I had emotional work to do. As my creative and musical efforts and their effects grew into the realization that artists are a channel for others’ emotional needs and a necessary therapeutic tool, I came to understand how important the listener is. What’s so great about music? For me, it’s you!

As I’ve continued my own education nonstop through my life and sought out more stories and truths about music and humanity, I’ve also found that the questions grow deeper and more numerous. But, I keep finding answers in the maelstrom. Music keeps becoming the eye of the storm. It keeps grounding me. It keeps whispering answers in my ear.

To further what Joseph Campbell said in The Power of Myth; “the real artist is one who can recognize and render what Joyce has called the ‘radiance’ of all things, as an epiphany or showing forth of their truth.” He also stated in the same series of interviews that “The artist is the one who communicates myth for today,” and that music brings us “closest to our gods.”

In further reference to the spiritual world, we’ve heard from Bach; “The sole purpose of music is to glorify God,” and Beethoven (who was practically declared a heretic): “Music is God speaking through us.” The Buddhist scholar and educator Dr. Daisaku Ikeda said the following:

The poetic spirit encourages people in all ranks and places to return to their naked humanity. Neither sentimental nor fantastic, it embraces and affirms the whole world and its inhabitants; It imparts the will to remain optimistic and unbending in the face of all hardships.

I have that last one hanging on my wall and I quote regularly the previous bits. I’ve also jumped into a book called Reaching Beyond: Improvisations on Jazz, Buddhism, and a Joyful Life, by Herbie Hancock, Daisaku Ikeda, and Wayne Shorter. I expect it will require a couple of reads at the very least. That’s what I do when something slaps me upside the brain; I read it again and again. I think I’ve read The Power of Myth a dozen times.

I’ve finished two runs through the books Sapiens and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari. He speaks from an anthropological standpoint about humans and our impact on our world and each other. Something he continues to discuss is the globalization of our politics and economics. He mentions that anthropologists see three unifying factors for humankind, for good or bad. Of course, science starts with no judgment and observes. These unifying influences are, according to Harari et al, and in order of their power to influence: Money, Empire, and Religion. Well, this hobbyist anthropologist would brazenly add one more: Music.

What’s so great about music? In a world that has lost so much of its intimacy and where we often lament the dissolution of the family units and close-knit communities, where everything has become so immediate as technology pushes overwhelming amounts of information into our lives every day, we have one very positive unifying factor. It’s the one for which you’d be hard put to find a downside. It’s the one that eclipses all others. It’s the one that heals troubled hearts and minds. The one that gives solace to the suffering and gods to the heathens. It’s music. Its use is spreading into the emotional spaces in our lives more widely than ever. It’s as if it’s a living breathing benevolence that knows we need it. And yet, we create it. How’s that for empowering? We just might save our world after all. What do you say we give it a try? You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

Phil Circle Music (WFH addition) with John Lennon and NOLA street art.

Peace and music,




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