Music of the holidays is a natural elixir

Photo courtesy

Whether it's hearing a familiar Christmas Carol or listening to a tender tune from your past, music enhances the moment. I'm humming "Joy to the World" as I write this column. And I'll probably move on to the pa rum pum pum pum of the Little Drummer Boy next. Accent on the pum.

Music is a natural elixir this time of year when the rush of holiday shopping and all of our accompanying indulgences can be just a little overwhelming. I'm thinking its effectiveness has roots in biblical times when music was used by shepherd boys to calm their animals — and maybe even a few errant Babylonians.

Did you know that "music therapy" is considered a form of alternative medicine? Research at the University of Washington has shown it can have a profound effect on body and psyche. Ever since World War I, it's been in the Veteran's Administration repertoire of approaches used with returning war-injured soldiers. Music has also been found effective in treating both autistic and hyper-active children, averting depression in older adults and reducing the anxiety of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. Recall, if you will, the video clip of Gabrielle Gifford, the congresswoman in rehabilitation after her traumatic head injury, as she sang the final bars of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun."

Does mentioning that make you want to hum along? If not, perhaps you need to pause for a moment and reflect upon when you last hummed a tune — or better yet, burst into song. If you attend my church, Ascension Lutheran on the corner of Barnett and Black Oak, you can do that weekly. Some really big-voiced singers attend the church, so even people who aren't musically inclined can blend in nicely and reap the collective benefit. Consider this an invitation. 'Tis the season.

There are many benefits from having musical interludes in your life. Research initiated at Stanford University and replicated in other university settings has shown that "music with a strong beat can stimulate brain waves so they are more likely to resonate in sync with the beat." Faster beats encourage better concentration and sharper, more alert thinking. Slower tempos promote more meditative reactions. Exposure to music with varying beats prompts our brains to be resilient and "better able to shift thinking speeds."

When we listen to music there's also a change in breathing patterns (often slower and deeper). Heart rate changes too. I'm thinking that as I continue humming, I'm getting an aerobic workout of sorts. Pa rum pum pum pum.

If you go to the website at, you will see an image of four newborn babies wearing over-sized headphones and looking sublime and content as they listen to musical selections. Love that photo. I printed it out and taped it to my computer. It speaks to me — it says "Joy to the World."

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. Email her at or call 541-776-7371, Ext. 210.

Reader Reaction
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Rules. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or fill out this form. New comments are only accepted for two weeks from the date of publication.