Parkinson’s Disease, Music and Mystery


Parkinson’s Disease what effect does music have on its sufferers? What mysterious thing happens to us when we are exposed to or even participate in song?

When you sit back and listen to music, say Samuel Barber’s Adagio for strings, something happens.  What is that something?  Your heart rate synchronizes with the music, your mind quiets and your thoughts melt away into the melodies.  Your whole being transcends time and space and you float on the harmonies and gentle rhythm of the piece.  If you listen to say, Buddy Holly’s That’ll be the day, again, something happens.  Your pulse quickens, you begin tapping your feet to the rhythm, you break into a smile and memories of dancing and happy times flood into your consciousness.  Wherever you were, whatever you were doing, suddenly you are transported somewhere else and you feel the change.  If you have ever sung in a group or been part of a choir, you have experienced first- hand the surge of serotonin and the uplifting feeling that blending your voice with other voices all singing the same song brings.

So perhaps all this has something to do with why music therapy is so good for Parkinson’s.  Music is complex, music is dynamic, and it operates on many levels. It lifts the mood and lifts the spirit.  Parkinson’s is also a complex disease.  It is more than a tremor, stiffness and gait disturbance, more than a lack of dopamine in the substantia nigra, more than the alpha-synuclein, the mitochondria or cell surfaces or the chaperone molecules within the cells.  Music in all its complexity seems to harmonize with the complexity of Parkinson’s disease.  Taking what may be a depressed mood and turning it to happier thoughts and perhaps a lighter mood.

Music is one area that although it can be quantified into individual parts, is; as Aristotle commented “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.  It is a process.  Music’s effects on the human psyche and the variability of those effects defy explanation. Parkinson’s disease is also a process that has tended to defy explanation.  Reducing disease to cellular function can explain the cellular function or “mis-function” and the interactions between the cellular relationships.  It can show the how and what of the disease process, but it cannot tell us the why.  Parkinson’s is a dynamic system, with many effects changing from moment to moment.  Sometimes it is the “whole”; sometimes it is just a “part”.

Adding music therapy to treatment for Parkinson’s is bringing two dynamic systems (really many more) together to change the course of yet another.  Exactly how music calms the Parkinson’s beast has yet to be determined.  Yet more important is the fact that it is all a process, not an end point. The complexity of both dynamic systems interacting to bring the human state or the disease state to the edge of that creative process, to the edge of energy and potential and to stimulate new dynamic processes.

In complex systems, such as music and disease, there will always be missing information, unanswered questions.  Part of the process is knowing there are limits, there are things perhaps we cannot quantify or “know”.   Life is still, and hopefully will always be a mystery.  It is releasing and letting go, accepting those limits, and allowing “magic” to happen.  Music is magic…. and mystery; and what a sweet mystery it is!.


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