We use music for many purposes: to celebrate, to grieve, to lift our mood, energize us, calm us down, even to create camaraderie and shared experience. Music has the ability to affect nearly every part of the brain. It stimulates the emotions in the amygdala. When we move to the music, it stimulates the motor cortex. It connects the right and left hemispheres of the brain. The memories of the music and its context are stored in the hippocampus. The cerebellum plays a role in everything from coordinating our foot tapping to forming and expressing our taste in music. (Huron, David. “Exploring How Music Works Its Wonders.” The Dana Foundation, August 1, 2006)

Music and rhythm have been used in labor and childbirth throughout history. It is often described as a method of helping the woman get into the innate part of her brain and “turning off” the thinking, analyzing part. Essentially, she is getting her brain out of the way to allow her body to do what it instinctively knows how to do. You have probably experienced this effect of music – the feeling of calm or of “zoning out” while listening to certain types of music or even rhythmic sounds. Imagine lying on the beach, eyes closed, listening to the slow rhythm of the crashing waves. Calming to the mind and soothing to the soul? It turns out this is not just an emotional response or a distraction from the stresses you were experiencing beforehand…

Rhythmic beats physically alter your brain waves.

In 2012, psychologist Annett Schirmer studied the impact that rhythm has on electrical activity in the brain by using EEG recordings to monitor brainwaves.

The EEG recording detects the combined electrical activity of thousands of neurons working together in the cerebral cortex. Just like the roar of a crowd at a baseball game, waves of electrical activity in the brain are generated when individual neurons in the cerebral cortex are combined in action. The EEG recordings showed that the waves of brain activity (alpha and beta waves) became synchronized around the auditory rhythm. That is, the ongoing oscillations of brain waves became phase shifted so that the peak of the wave always occurred at a precise point relative to the next beat in the drum rhythm. Rhythmic sound synchronizes brain waves. (Fields, R. Douglas. “The Power of Music: Mind Control by Rhythmic Sound.” Scientific American, October 19, 2012.)

Is your mind blown?? Mine totally was. Your brain waves line up with a rhythmic beat! This is why listening to fast music amps you up. We use music with a fast beat to get psyched up before a big event, get the blood pumping, get ourselves excited! It works because our brainwaves are resonating with that rhythm causing us to become more alert and even more focused. On the other end of the spectrum, slow music calms us down. This is why music with a slow, calm steady beat is perfect for yoga, massage, prayer and meditation. Some slow beats can even bring the mind into a hypnotic or meditative state.

These studies have also shown that the more opportunities we give our brains to practice shifting speeds, the better they get at adjusting. Musicians responded more quickly and to more varied rhythms than non-musicians. So, like every area of music – practice makes perfect!

“For most of us, the brain is locked into a particular level of functioning,” [clinical psychologist Harold Russell] said. “If we ultimately speed up or slow down the brainwave activity, then it becomes much easier for the brain to shift its speed as needed.” (Saarman, Emily. “Feeling the beat: Symposium explores the therapeutic effects of rhythmic music.” Stanford News, May 31, 2006)

So what does this all mean for labor and birth?? Many things! But we’ll look at two. The first is the most obvious. Music in labor is important. It is not just a distraction, it has a real, physiological affect on how a woman copes during her labor. In the early phase of labor, many moms like to have lighter or more upbeat music. This matches the emotional state often associated with this phase: excited, happy, sometimes nervous! Then, as contractions become more intense, choosing music with a slow beat – and playing it loudly enough that she can really hear it! – will slow her brainwave activity. This can help calm some of that overthinking, over analyzing activity that causes unnecessary stress and can impede her labor progress.

Also, as the Stanford article above describes, we can teach our brains to make this shift more effectively! Woman can begin using slow-rhythm music during their pregnancies to train their brains. This can be a great activity to do at bedtime to improve sleep. It can also be used midday as a stress-relieving break!

The second birth application takes the rhythm away from the music and puts it in our bodies. One of the methods of pain management that I discuss in my childbirth classes and CAPPA educator trainings is Penny Simpkin‘s 3 Rs of Childbirth. In her many years of experience working with laboring mothers, she saw 3 things that set apart the women who were able to cope well with their labors: Relaxation, Rhythm and Ritual.

Relaxation – the mothers were able to relax not just during contractions but in between. They took full advantage of those short breaks so they could start the next contraction fresh.

Rhythm – the mothers used some method of coping that was rhythmic. Many moms use deep abdominal breathing that has an innate rhythm to it. It could also be in walking, swaying her hips, rocking on a birth ball or in a rocking chair, a rhythmic massage being done by her support partner, tapping on the bed or on her leg with her hand, someone brushing her hair or rhythmically spraying her belly or back with the shower sprayer – or dancing!! Often it comes from something she has learned in her childbirth class, but many times it is something that no one planned. She naturally finds a rhythm in her own body that helps her cope.

Ritual – repeating this rhythmic coping method for a number of contractions. It will change as she moves through different stages of labor, but finding a rhythm that helps her cope and bringing it back when she is struggling can help her make it through the more difficult contractions and improve her ability to cope overall.

Rhythm doesn’t have to be in audible music. Our bodies can be our instruments! Mamas, use that rhythm, use your body.

Get the rhythm in your body and in your mind, and dance that baby out!!

Scientists are conducting further research with this information to see how it may be useful in treating anxiety, stress, ADD, Alzheimer’s disease, and aiding recovery from brain trauma, brain surgery and stroke. There are so many promising applications! Though, explaining why rhythm is so vital for helping women cope in labor is a pretty amazing, immediate application!

Explaining why listening to ocean waves is vitally good for my soul? Well, that’s just icing on the cake.