Music is a secret weapon when working with the brain and body! When it is used in the right way at the right time, music can be a powerful tool in the hands of an attachment parent! Music can be used in healing individuals with Attachment Disorder, autonomic dysregulation, and other disorders involving the brain or nervous system.
Some Cool Facts About Music
Did you know that music therapy has been used to help people successfully get off of anti-depressant and stimulant medications?
Certain sound frequencies can put our bodies into a state of fear and dread.
Retail stores and malls play specific types of music at the volumes that have been found to increase the chances that you will stay longer and buy more.
Music therapy can actually cause neuroplasticity, or change how the brain has been set to wire and fire its neurons.
Specific types of music therapy can increase the size of the cerebellum, the part of our brain that coordinates our movements.
Music can turn on the Social Engagement System even in someone who gets anxious with face to face contact with another human.
In this blog, we are going to explore these topics and get really specific on how to take advantage of these subconscious properties of music in order to create a therapeutic environment in your home and better relationship with your child.
Too often than not, unknowingly parents make their jobs harder by having music and sounds that put the bodies of their children into anxiety, fear, and a defiant mood. Mood changes can seem to come out of nowhere, but this is all avoidable.
Rather than having another difficult thing on top of what is already making your job hard when working with a child with attachment disorder, intentionally cause the child’s brain to subconsciously regulate, connect, and attach!
Music Can Change the Brain
Music therapy is one way in which neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change, is facilitated.
Music therapy has been used to improve attention and sensory processing. Ron Minson has used sound therapy to help people get off their medications for depression and ADD/ADHD. He has used sound therapy and has been successful in stopping medication for 80% of ADD and 50% of ADHD people he has seen. For more information on his work with Integrated Listening Systems (iLS), you can watch him explaining his work on youtube here.
Music, more precisely, melodies in music even enhance the Social Engagement System. This is the system that we want to enhance when working with a child with trauma and attachment issues!
Music Changes the Brain From the Bottom Up
When one think of focusing and attention, one often thinks of the higher functions of the brain and can easily assume that music acts on those higher functions to improve focus and attention.
Although this is not the case, music does change the brain, but it does so by organizing and quieting the lower levels of the brain, not by acting on the higher levels of the brain. This is called a “bottom-up approach” rather than a “top-down approach” therapy. These are the therapies that are the most effective for disorders of trauma and attachment.
Music therapy is able to improve the higher functions of the brain by reducing the subconscious distractions and energy of the lower brain. Thus freeing the higher structures and functions of the brain, allowing it to do what it does best.
The higher levels of the brain refer to the part of the brain that is more developed in humans as opposed to other animals: the thin layer of cortex where our higher functioning processes occur. These higher functioning processes include planning ahead and logical thinking based on reason and fact.
The lower levels of the brain refer to the part of the brain that is shared with other animal species, and controls the processes that run our body to keep us alive. These processes are mostly subconscious, it is what keeps our hearts beating and our lungs breathing even when we are thinking about what to make for dinner.
This lower level develops first in a growing fetus, and there are functions that are not fully developed even by the time it is born. Yes, a baby’s heart beats and lungs breathe, but some of its neurological and survival systems still need to complete development, like being able to hold their head up or see far distances clearly.
Even in adults, music therapy can impact these lower levels of the brain, which has proven to slow down the heart rate (3).
The brain processes sound in these lower subcortical regions. Based on the type of sound, it can turn on and enhance connections between the different brain areas that process positive reward and attention (insula) (2).
These changes can be temporary, just while a particular music is being played, but can be integrated into the brain and through neuroplasticity, establish a new, healthier, and more organized pattern of connections and processing.
Music and Sensory Processing
The lower levels of the brain control the processes that keep our bodies alive. There is a lot involved in running our bodies to help us survive in the world! This is a very active and busy process!
Most of the processes are subconscious, but we can switch over to conscious control of some of them. For example, you can stop what you are doing right now, and control your breathing, forcing it to slow down or speed up. However, as soon as you go back to reading this blog, your breathing goes back to being a subconscious process. Our conscious minds can only focus on one or two things at a time!
A large part of this subconscious process of the lower brain is to take in cues from our environment. This guides its response to keeping us alive. For example, the brain constantly needs to be reading the temperature around us, because it has to adjust our internal temperature in response.
Similarly, noises are an important source of cues from our environment to which our lower brain is constantly tuned into. Whether footsteps, cars driving, or birds chirping, all of those are cues to any environmental threats. Only when those cues indicate danger that needs an action response do we consciously become aware of these cues.
Cues come in many forms, but are all sensory. Sensory cues are sights, sounds, smells, taste, and touch. The brain registering all of these sensory cues is called Sensory Processing.
Since Attachment Disorder is a disorder of the lower level of the brain and the autonomic nervous system, it is very common to also have a sensory processing system that is poorly organized.
Sensory Processing Disorders are a common diagnosis for children who have developmental trauma.
This comes at a high cost for the brain, because the very system that is supposed to protect us and keep us alive through reading environmental cues, is unorganized. When the sensory processing system is poorly organized, the cost will be a higher level of conscious vigilance.
This is seen as hyper-vigilance. One will tune into the smallest sounds and may have a hyper-startle response. Their self-protection has had to become more of a conscious process, rather than a background subconscious process.
Since a brain can only focus on one, maybe two things at a time, and because survival takes top priority, it is the one thing the brain consciously focuses on. There goes reading, math, play, creativity, and connection with others.
Music and Movement
While music facilitates neuroplasticity, add movement to the music and you get a powerful dynamic that is greater than the two activities by themselves!
When movement is combined with music, there is a synergistic effect on reorganizing the sensory processing pathways in the lower levels of the brain.
Some of this effect might have to do with pulling in more of the reward and motivation parts of the brain with movement, since movement does result in a release of dopamine. A state of dopamine deficiency is implicated in many addictive behaviors, and in a form of apathetic depression that seeks arousal, stimulation, and meaning.
Increasing the levels of dopamine in a healthy way in children with attachment disorder can not only prevent later behaviors and outbursts (an unhealthy way to get dopamine), but also when combined with music, play, and connection it can start to reorganize the brain to associate reward and pleasure with healthy activities.
Movement also engages the vestibular system, which is coordinated by the part of the brain called the cerebellum and the nervous system. By activating these two systems, the parasympathetic nervous system is engaged, the Social Engagement System is turned on and the movement helps to calm and ground the nervous system (2).
Creating a Therapeutic Environment at Home Using Music and Movement
When working with a child or an adult who has an Attachment Disorder, we need to create a therapeutic environment. This gives their nervous system a chance to relax and come out of survival mode. Healing starts when the nervous system is able to feel safe and completely relaxed as it does when you intentionally create a therapeutic environment.
A therapeutic environment will be like medicine: “A sensory diet of controlled sound, movement and balance,” working towards being able to integrate lots of different sensory input in an organized fashion (2).
There are some very easy ways to incorporate music and movement in a therapeutic way into your home and daily life! Whether or not you or your child struggles with trauma and attachment issues, it will benefit you – everyone in the home will feel better and perform better!
Another important thing you need to know about music and sound when creating a therapeutic environment is the affect low frequency can have on the sensory system. Low frequencies can create a sense of fear, such as with background low rumbles, typically that of machinery and ventilation systems. However, nature, without any mechanical noises, will always be the sound that has the most profound positive effect on our systems.
For example, on a hike this weekend, I reached the top only to hear a loud bulldozer clearing dirt a few miles away. What was just a relaxing hike a few seconds ago, where calm energy of finally reaching the top was coursing through me, it drastically turned into a noisy experience, where I could feel the physiological changes, the increase of my heart rate, and the sense of urgency and anxiety this machinery noise created in me.
There are many a children with Attachment Disorder I have seen become dysregulated and flip out after starting our Friday cleaning with vacuum cleaners!
Creating a therapeutic environment will require you to be aware of those types of noises, reduce them as much as possible, and when you can’t, overpower them with calming music.
First of all, determine what effect you want to produce with music. Most times, you are going to want music that will produce a calm and energizing effect.
To get this effect, you are going to look for music with a tempo that matches what you want your heart rate at, because you got it! Your heart rate will change to the beat of the music.
Looking at the brain though, the brain cells fire in synchrony with the music (2). Music can be used to change the rhythm and regulation of the brain, the same type of effect achieved with neurofeedback therapy.
With children who are more in the hyperactive and sympathetic charge state, you will want more calming and slow music. And with children who are more in the freeze and limp state, you will want a more energizing tempo.
Not only is the tempo important, but also the melody since that is what helps activate the Social Engagement System. In order to do this, the melody needs to be within the frequency of the human voice and with high frequencies that stimulate the inner ear muscles.
These melodies are achieved with complex music, rich in harmonies and with high overtones. You will get this effect with symphonies and with choirs, especially Gregorian chants (2). This music also has a regular beat that organizes the sensory processing system, as opposed to an irregular beat of many pop songs, which disorganized the sensory processing system.
The instruments that have the range of the human voice are ones like the violin and flute; they have similar inflections like that of a human voice in conversation (2). Melodies, specifically with instruments that are in the range of the human voice will most activate the Social Engagement System in your child.
There have been a few times when I used music therapy with a child I was working with who was so dysregulated, screaming, crying, or sometimes in a middle of a rage, and what was able to snap them out of their dysregulated state was really loud music. It was often music that I would never otherwise recommend – songs driven by drums and not melody, and with irregular rather than regular beats.
I want to stress that these times were an exception to the usual music I would reach for in the home or car to help them stay regulated, calm and connected with me. I do not know why that worked in those instances when nothing else seemed to get them out of their state, and in the moment I summed it up to the attachment parenting practice of “Out crazy the crazy.”
Time to Experiment with Music
Now it is your turn to experiment!
First, you may want to experiment on yourself before experimenting on your child! Sit down with your computer and open up youtube. Before you start playing any music, do a check in with yourself – feel and count your heartbeat. Notice your breathing – deep or shallow? Notice your shoulders – are they relaxed or have some tightness? Notice any other areas of your body that you know to be common areas where you carry stress and place your attention to assess what state it is prior to starting the experiment.
Now you are ready to start the experiment! You are going to listen to different kinds of music and notice the physical effects it has on you. Yep, you are going to count your heartbeat, breathing, and notice tension in the same spots with each different song you play.
Here are samples of different music you can experiment with:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ac-deZkzwgg (example of classical symphony music)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qA4XX15xatk (choir chant)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmxCfpsX9Xo (Gregorian chant)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RqcjBLMaWCg&list=PL3oW2tjiIxvQ1BZS58qtot3-p-lD32oWT (popular pop song from 2017)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPB9ENSd1Xc&list=PLRZlMhcYkA2HCg8PZnI1EaqcnIhU-Kd3T&index=13 (top Contemporary Christian song 2017)
After you experiment on yourself, you can experiment on your child!
Try playing different types of music while at home or in the car. After 5 minutes, try to engage with your child, and see what happens. If they respond positively and are eager to connect with you – you found it! If they have a hard time transitioning, keep their eyes and bodies turned to what they are doing instead of orienting to your voice, seem to startle at your voice, or seem to debate whether to engage with or obey you, you also have your answer.
Experiment with tempo, melodies, rhythms, and volume to find what helps your child stay regulated and be more organized in their sensory cues.
Add Movement to Music Therapy
Now for the double punch! Start moving and dancing with your child!
Do music, rhythm, and movement with them in little moments throughout the day, and even in one longer session if possible. This is a time that you will find they will be more open to touch and eye contact if that is something they normally struggle with. This is turning on the Social Engagement System!
To take attachment parenting to the supercharged level – create a dance to a song that only you two know about and do together. This type of “secret” will help create excitement and reward that your child associates with you!
Formal Music and Sound Therapies
If you are interested in formal music therapy, here are options for you:
- Integrated Listening System
- Tomatis’s Listening
- Interactive Metronome
- Therapeutic Listening
If your child is at the place where they could be successful with it, learning to play an instrument and classical dance lessons are forms of music therapy that enhance brain neuroplasticity and sensory processing organization as well!
I am very curious to hear what impacts music has had on you and your child!
Did you do the music experiments??
- Doidge, Norman (2015). The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries From the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity. Penguin Books, New York, NY.
- Porges, S.W. Music Therapy & Trauma: Insights From the Pklyvagal Theory. K. Stewart (Ed.), Symposium on Music Therapy & Trauma: Bridging Theory and Clinical Practice. New York: Satchnote Press.
- Kume S., Nishimura Y., Mizuno K., Sakimoto N., Hori H., Tamura Y., Yamato M., Mitsuhashi R., Akiba K., Koizumi J.I., Watanabe Y., Kataoka Y. Music Improves Subjective Feelings Leading to Cardiac Autonomic Nervous Modulation: A Pilot Study. Front Neurosci. March 2017;11:108
- Goldstein, D. S. (1995). Stress, catecholarnines and cardiovascular disease. NewYork: Oxford University Press.
- Perry, B.D., Pollard R.A., Blaicley T.L., Baker W.L., Vigilante D. Childhood Trauma, the Neurobiology of Adaptation, and “Use-Dependent” Development of the Brain: How “States” Become “Traits”. Infant Mental Health Journal, 1995; 16(4): 271-291