Music and Self-Regulation

“The cerebellum right at the bottom of the brain is the timekeeper of the brain, controlling movement such as foot-tapping, dancing and playing an instrument. It plays an important role in emotional reactions to music. Our lower brain develops early and is functional from birth. It is involved with the regulation of all our primary body functions such as heart rate, breathing, digestion, temperature and regulation. Music helps with calming and regulation because it is an intuitive language of the emotions. We don’t have to think in order to process music. It can provide a calming, regulating environment of sound. The lower brain systems function without any conscious thought, but they respond to stress by speeding up our heart rate and breathing, slowing digestion, making the body ready for action. When we are highly aroused, it is harder for us to access higher levels of the brain. Music can calm stressed systems through the use of soft singing, rocking, patting, use of slow tempo and specific use of the elements of music.” (Wylie, 2017)

“Rhythm stirs our bodies. Melody or tonality stirs our brains. The coming together of rhythm and melody bridges our cerebellum (the motor control, primitive little brain) and our cerebral cortex (the most evolved, most human part of our brain)”  (Levitin, 2006)

What does this mean?

It is no coincidence that when a child is distressed our first instinct is to rock, bounce or sing to them in soft soothing tones. This natural response calms the child’s ‘lower brain’, returning them to a peaceful and regulated space.

When the lower brain is highly aroused it can be observed that children are in a state of ‘fight, flight or freeze’. They have no control over many of their actions as they are unable to use the other parts of their brain. These instances are sometimes referred to as tantrums, meltdowns or shutdowns. Often during this time, distraction, rewards or reasoning will not settle the child as they need assistance with self-regulation. This is where music can be an excellent tool as it brings the focus back to slowing the heart rate and breathing by singing in a slow tempo, allowing the child to feel calm.

Music can also be used to increase arousal. When singing to children in a faster tempo with complex melodies children can become excited and energised. These are songs that instantly make you want to get up and move or dance such as ‘Everything is Awesome’ from the Lego Movie

“The elements of music are used in very specific ways within Musical Play to match children’s energy levels, to build joyful, musical, regulated, relationship-based music interactions between parent and child, and parents and their children, within each Musical Playgroup.” (Wylie, 2017)

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