The power of music
Can music really have the same effect as antidepressants, stop insomnia and cure anxiety, too? Nilufer Atik meets one revolutionary musician who is convinced it can.
When Orsino utters the famous words, "If music be the food of love, play on", in Twelfth Night, it is in the hope that a melody might ease his aching heart.
But had he lived in modern times, Shakespeare's lovesick duke might have discovered it to be the cure for insomnia, depression and anxiety, too. Especially if he had met composer John Levine.
The 60-year-old former rocker has created a special type of healing music called Alphamusic Therapy, which he claims can help treat all of these conditions and more. It works by using sound to tune in to the alpha waves in the brain that control mood, and has actually been scientifically shown to alter brain chemistry.
"We underestimate the power of music," says John, "yet we only have to recall the last time a song made us laugh or cry to realise how much it can affect the way we feel. What I do is basically an extension of this."
John, who played piano from the age of three, came up with the idea of making therapeutic recordings when his father became extremely ill with stress-related conditions in 1984.
"You name it, he had it," John recalls. "Diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease - he even suffered a stroke. Stress was slowly killing him and no matter how often doctors told him he needed to learn to relax more, he just wouldn't listen."
It was heartbreaking for John watching his father's health deteriorate and feeling unable to do anything to help. In the 80s, after studying music and composition at the University of Sydney, he was working long hours as a recording studio manager at Emerald City Studios, where the band INXS recorded an album, and also composing music for adverts and film.
He knew that stress could take the same toll on his own health if he wasn't careful, so decided to go on a transcendental meditation course.
"I'd sit by [my father's] bedside and tell him how much meditation was helping me, but he couldn't understand it," John says. "I remember thinking that it was so sad that people like him would never know the benefits."
After his father died in 1985, John recorded his first piece of Alphamusic.
"Part of my university course involved examining the use of sound as a tool for relaxation," he says. "I was fascinated by that concept and thought to myself, 'Perhaps pharmacies should be selling music to some people instead of drugs?' It got me thinking."
As research, he bought some relaxation tapes but was disappointed by what he heard.
"It was just a lot of irritating dolphin sounds and pan pipes," he says. "But thanks to my education in music composition, I was able to analyse it and pick out all the reasons it didn't work. I decided to put together some recordings myself that would recreate the feeling I got when I meditated."
His aim, however, wasn't just to make another standard relaxation tape - there was enough wallpaper music out there already.
"I wanted to literally slow the brainwaves down to induce relaxation," says John. "I put together my own set of principles. Some came from my formal classical education in composition, but some of those rules I broke."
His starting point was to use an instrument that people in Western society would identify with: in his case, the piano. Next was to record in a scale that evoked a feeling of wellbeing.
"If you use a minor scale, to the Western ear it is interpreted as melancholic," he says. "So I was careful not to. Ironically, that was the scale used in most of the relaxation tapes I heard."
He tested the hour-long recording on friends and all claimed that it helped them to sleep better and feel happier. But without any contacts in the health industry and uncertain what to do with the recording, John tucked the tape away in a drawer to be forgotten about for the next 15 years.
It wasn't until 2000, following the break-up of his marriage, that he found the recording again - just when he needed it most.
"I was at a real low point in my life," he says. "I had moved to Poland with my wife and three kids in 1993, but then she met someone and went with him to Sweden, taking our children with her. I was a broken man."
Depressed and suicidal, John stumbled on the recording in an old storage box. He listened to it again and again, and the dark cloud that had been hanging over him began to lift. Realising its power, he took every penny he had, hired a studio and musicians and recorded a whole album - his first CD, Silence of Peace. To prove that the therapy worked, he arranged an EEG (electroencephalogram) test to measure brain activity on a stressed, chainsmoking GP.
"Every time he listened to the music, his brainwaves went from the beta to alpha, so from excitable to calm and relaxed, within four minutes," says John. "It was remarkable."
Soon afterwards, a health magazine in Poland looking to give away a relaxation CD to readers contacted John and asked him to make a recording for them. He created Orange Grove Siesta, specifically to help women sleep. It sold 100,000 copies. Word began to spread and after recording further albums, John visited the UK regularly between 2004 and 2010 to promote his therapy at health and wellbeing shows. Soon GPs, counsellors, nurses and even hospices were talking about the effect the recording had on patients.
One of them was Dr Roderick Fahey at the Portumna Health Centre in Co. Galway, Ireland. Noticing a rise in the number of patients suffering from stress-related disorders, he wanted to offer the music as an alternative to medication. He created a wellbeing room at the practice where patients could sit in a massage chair and listen to alpha music.
"Whenever patients came in complaining of insomnia, anxiety attacks or depression, instead of immediately dishing out a prescription, I offered them three sessions a week in the wellbeing room," says Dr Fahey. "Those who opted for it had a 100pc success rate. Some showed huge improvement in just two weeks. It was the equivalent of taking 20mg of Prozac per day."
Dentist Dr Nader Malik tried alpha music therapy because he was concerned about the possible negative side effects of dental sedation on patients and staff. He now plays the music in the waiting room of his private practice.
"Quite a few of my anxious patients have found that the music relaxes them sufficiently to not require drugs such as nitrous oxide sedation or IV sedation," he says. "A few of them have also fallen asleep during their appointments."
The treatment brought surprising results with schoolchildren's performances, too. A study by Cambridge graduate Rob Bridgman investigated the impact it might have on hyperactive and disruptive behaviour in schools. Lessons among boys aged 12 and 13 accompanied by John's alpha wave CDs had a decrease in distractions of more than 60pc.
John's music was also played between acts at the memorial concert for Diana, Princess of Wales in 2007. And in 2009, nurses at the Birmingham Children's Hospital epilepsy ward used alpha music therapy to get patients off to sleep quickly so they could measure their brain waves.
"We are so quick to resort to medication these days whenever we are feeling ill or have an emotional problem, but there are more natural things we can do that involve no side effects," says John, who has recorded 29 albums, which have sold to more than 200,000 people. "Perhaps it's about time we started using them."
With the use of antidepressants rising significantly in Ireland since 2007 - 29pc increase in use in 2011 compared to 2007 (NACD) - it is certainly worth considering.
See silenceofmusic.com for more information on John's music.
(© Telegraph Group Ltd)
Health & Living