Your choice…

It was the last class in an Ai Chi series, and we opened with Ai Chi in 3, a lively version of Ai Chi that was new to the class members. We transitioned to traditional progressions with Jun Kono’s Ai Chi Synchrony. Finally, we moved through the water to my favorite Ai Chi music, Carlos Nakai’s Canyon Trilogy. This music always reminds me of a wonderful family trip to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico many years ago. We set off in different directions to explore the ancient Pueblo ruins, each of us on our own journey into the past. Unexpectedly, soft flute music drew us to one of the dwellings, where we found our teenage son playing a newly purchased Indian flute. It was a precious moment that forever linked the good feelings of a special family time to the sounds of the Native American flute.

As our Ai Chi class concluded, one of the group members asked, “Can certain music make you feel sad?” I replied that studies of remote cultures around the world have shown that slow music with predominantly minor chord progressions have a universal effect of creating a feeling of sadness. I added that personal experience with music can also create emotional associations. She then shared that she felt sadness during Ai Chi Synchrony. This surprised me, as Ai Chi Synchrony is not in a minor key and her experience with it was limited to our class. Suddenly it hit me~ it was not the music that was affecting her emotions… It was me.

I love sharing Ai Chi with others. Ai Chi has many positive effects~ improving balance, enhancing breathing, extending mobility, core strengthening, pain relief, stress reduction… But the aspect that I most appreciate in this world that seems skewed toward a first response of anger and hate, is the ability to find centering and calm. One of my class members has commented that she feels tensed up a lot of the time, but when she does Ai Chi she is relaxed for the rest of the day. On this particular day I was feeling sad that a very fun series was coming to an end. I was also in the midst of processing some upsetting news I had recently received. At the start of the class, the group was fully absorbed in new learning with Ai Chi in 3. Ai Chi Synchrony brought familiar territory, and the group was more fully able to soak in the moment~ and to subconsciously absorb my shallowly buried unsettled feelings. Fortunately, the last music selection rescued my frame of mind and lifted the spirits of the class.

I have often asked my class participants about their favorite music genres to create customized playlists based on recognized attributes of relaxing music. Personal preference is the bottom line determinant as to whether or not music is relaxing, so what is very relaxing for one person may be less so for another. But in a class, there is another factor in the mix~ the chameleon effect of participants as they consciously and subconsciously mimic the leader. Ai Chi class preparation includes setting your internal tone as well as the external surroundings. Yes, your role is to be a facilitator but you cannot escape being a part of the experience as well.

What is the most relaxing class music? The leader’s favorite.

Upcoming Ai Chi classes in Evanston, IL: Join me doing Ai Chi at the Evanston Athletic Club on Tuesday and Thursday mornings during the month of September, 2018. Call (847) 866-6190 to reserve a spot.

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The wild card~ personal music preference

Studies have defined objective traits of relaxing music, but the final component that can make or break stress reduction in an individual is subjective~ whether or not the person “likes” the music.

Not surprisingly, some of the information on the area of personal preference comes from marketing research~ research done with the intent of creating a feeling or emotional connection to commercial brands or products. Whether or not individual marketing researchers follow strict scientific method which can be applied to a general population is unknown~ they are not bound by the same stringent standards as scientific researchers. These standards include assurance that the researcher seeks to be objective and neutral, that the study can be replicated, that the study participants accurately represent the target population, and that the research is done in such a way that it is considered valid by statistical analysis, using equipment that provides accurate and reliable results. Companies spend billions of dollars to reap the benefits of accurate research, but because the studies are proprietary they are not available for public interpretation.

A British marketing research company headed by a neuropsychologist called Mindlab measures responses to target areas through numerous tools and measures. They collect data on brain waves, facial muscle contraction, skin moisture, heart rate and heart rate variances to learn about attention, positive motivation, emotion, cognitive load, and sympathetic and parasympathetic responses. Using this data they develop presentations that promote desired associations in most people. This is the strategy that went into developing “the world’s most relaxing song,” Weightless by Marconi Union. Listening to this music reportedly reduces anxiety by 65% and reduces physiological resting rates by 35%. A 10-hour recording of this music is available on youtube.com. I may be in the minority, but the problem for me is that I don’t like this music. Regardless of the research, it is highly unlikely that I would listen to it.

What kind of relaxing music do I turn to for Ai Chi? The first year I practiced Ai Chi I did so solely to Jun Kono’s Ai Chi Synchrony, imbedding strong relaxing associations for me. The second year I started looking for variety, and I turned to some of my old favorites. Music affects many parts of our minds, including the amygdala, which is linked to emotion and memory. I learned to play the acoustic guitar in my early teenage years and spent many hours playing both alone and with friends. Playing the guitar helped me center during this often turbulent stage of change and transition. And later as an adult when I drove between workplace sites, I found myself tuning to the Coffee House Sirius XM radio station, especially on stressful days. This music that helped me center during my formative years has continued to lift my spirits throughout my life. So my relaxing music list includes acoustic guitar music.

I love to travel and explore new places and different cultures. On a trip to South America my husband and I discovered the haunting sounds of Incan panpipes as we explored Incan ruins. And later on a family trip through the four corners area our son purchased a wooden flute. Shortly after we dispersed to explore an Indian pueblo, the unexpected soothing sounds of his flute echoed through the clay dwellings and we found him playing in a small, ancient room. These special memories put panpipe and Native American flute music on my relaxing list.

The analytical approach can only go so far~ in the end, relaxing music is personal, and stress-reduction starts with a relaxed leader. I like different music on different days. And as an Ai Chi instructor, I share a variety of relaxing music that I like with my classes, and make choices within my own library of music based on their responses. There is no “one size fits all” music.

Finding flow

While slow music tempo is identified with relaxing music, studies also show that participants perceive music with a low volume and a small range of tones as most calming~ in other words, music that is consistent, without any surprises or sudden distractions. Parents across the ages have found that a quiet lullaby has an amazingly calming affect on a crying baby. Even at a faster tempo, consistent music brings calm that can inspire the experience of flow, a concept that Katrien Lemahieu highlights in the faster paced Ai Chi in 3.

What is flow? It is becoming completely engaged in and enjoying the process of doing something in the present moment. Flow is not specific to any one type of activity~ it may be experienced by artists, writers, dancers, runners, swimmers, surgeons, rock climbers, those who play games and musicians as they focus on, perform and enjoy an appropriately challenging activity that they have mastered. It is being “in the zone” for runners and “finding pace” for swimmers. In fact, flow can be experienced in everyday activities that you feel good about~ driving a car, sweeping a floor, ironing clothes, putting away dishes… When you are in flow, what you are doing and awareness of your surroundings merge and even a sense of time may be lost with this intensely positive focus.

But flow hangs in a delicate balance. It is threatened by the intrusion of challenges that exceed your abilities and in not being challenged enough. If I am trying to do Ai Chi in the ocean where an unrelenting strong tide challenges my ability to maintain my balance, I become anxious, stressed and flow is lost. On the other hand, if I do a dozen repetitions of each Ai Chi step I may feel relaxed at first, but boredom may creep in, causing my mind to wander as I lose the anticipation of moving through the dance of Ai Chi~ again, flow is lost.

You are rewarded when you find flow~ there is a sense of balance in giving full attention to something you like, that is challenging and that you know you can do. Thoughts, feelings, desires and complex activity all come together. And studies show that finding flow in one genre can help empower an individual to deal with other potentially stressful or challenging areas of life.

I love the calm and consistency of the topically titled “River Flows In You” by Lindsey Stirling… This music opens the door to finding flow for me.

And the beat goes on…

Music played at 60-80 beats per minute is perceived as most relaxing. Why? The answer may be in a phenomenon called entrainment, the interaction between independent rhythmic processes, such as a musical beat and unregulated heart rate or brain wave frequency.

Christiann Huygens, the 17th century Dutch physicist who invented the pendulum clock, first brought recognition of entrainment to the modern world. Huygens observed that regardless of when they started, the pendulum movement rate of free-swinging pendulum clocks on the same wall synchronized over time. Entrainment has been observed in fireflies that flicker simultaneously, the resetting of body clocks with sunlight changes (circadian rhythm) and in inanimate machine operations. It has been hypothesized that wave interactions cause entrainment synchronization. In the case of listening to music (sound waves entering our bodies through our auditory system), heart rate will move to match ongoing music tempos that we hear, over time. 60 to 80 beats per minute is a calming rate~ a resting heart rate goal for relaxation. And listening to music at this tempo can cause the heart rate move toward the rate of the music.

The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems control heart rate. The rest and digest parasympathetic nervous system correlates with relaxation and a slow heart rate, and the fight or flight sympathetic nervous system relates to excitation and a faster heart rate. Entraining to a slower tempo of 60 to 80 beat per minute relies on parasympathetic nervous system control and can promote relaxation.

But there is more… There are other rhythms going on in our bodies. Neurologists measure brainwaves with EEG studies, and scientists classify brain waves by their output frequency. Alpha waves are defined as waves measured at 8-13 Hz and are indicative of a relaxed mental state~ when a person is awake but relaxed with eyes closed. Alpha wave activity in the occipital lobe of the brain goes along with a relaxed mental state and low arousal. Beta waves measure 13-30 Hz and are associated with a conscious and more attentive state, with eyes open. And faster paced, more activating songs with a quick tempo produce greater beta wave amplitudes. However, some people find faster paced music more relaxing. When I shared “Ai Chi in 3” music (which varies between a moderate and fast-pace) with a class that had been working with slower music for several weeks, one participant said she found the faster paced music to be relaxing, and added the interesting comment, “but I’m Italian and we like fast music.” The personal preference factor.

Studies show that brain waves are affected by music when it is the type of music that the listener prefers. If the listener likes the music, the music tempo influences brain wave frequency, but if the listener does not care for the type of music, the tempo has less of an effect on brain wave frequency. It appears that personal preference for music turns a switch on or off for the ability of music to cause brainwave entrainment. Heart rate and brainwave entrainment may happen~ or may not, with personal preference being the wild card. As is so often the case, “more study is needed…”

And as Jun Kono reminds us, “However it turns out is how it was meant to be.”

What makes music relaxing?

Ai Chi practitioners have found that relaxing music enhances the stress-reducing effects of Ai Chi~ but what makes certain music relaxing? This is a hot topic for researchers in the fields of psychology and music therapy. Across multiple studies in recent years, research subjects have identified relaxing music with a slower rhythm tempo (60-80 beats per minute), a consistent low volume, a narrow pitch range and an unpredictable melody. Most of the time. The wild card is personal music preference, which plays a major role in perception of relaxing music, as well as mediating the effects of other components. But what actually happens to make you feel relaxed when you listen to music?

When music is created, sound waves hit the eardrum and cause it to vibrate. This creates a chain reaction within the inner ear, stimulating tiny hairs inside the semicircular canal, which are arranged to respond to consecutive pitches, like a keyboard. This stimulus is transferred through the brainstem to the auditory cortex where impulses are also arranged in “keyboard” order before being dispersed to more different parts of the brain than has been found for any other human function. Information about rhythm, pitch, tone quality, melody, meter and emotional reactions to music is processed and synthesized across the brain in a few thousandths of a second.  The fact that music has such a global presence in the brain is important. Each different part of the brain that is activated by listening to music also participates in other functions such as movement, balance, emotional control and focus, which seem to interplay with the complexity of perception of music. And our bodies respond with changes in heart rate, respiration and blood pressure, releasing neurochemicals and perhaps even altering brain wave activation.

That’s the broad answer. The specifics are fascinating~ the subject of upcoming blogs.

In her comprehensive book The Power of Music, Elena Mannes explores research and anecdotes about how music affects us. Her work is also featured in a recent documentary entitled “The Music Instinct.”