It’s almost time for your client to arrive for their massage appointment. As you set up the room, you pull a CD off the table and put in the player. What music selection did you pick? Was it the one closest to the top, the one you felt like hearing today, or was it the only one you own?

Music plays an important part in the total relaxation experience we give our clients. Selecting music for this healing time should be done with care. Therapists need to consider what they are trying to achieve via therapy and relaxation, while keeping in mind the emotional state the client may be in when they arrive.

From the discovery that Mozart’s music can help improve memory and recall, to other trials showing music can help regulate blood pressure and heart rates, control pain, improve a sour attitude, and help direct mental and physical energies, we know music can be used for better effectiveness and health. You can use music to energize, relax, focus, heal, uplift, cleanse, and boost creativity.

The impact of music begins with hearing. The sound waves from music are captured by your outer ear, and then travel to your middle ear. There, the sound is amplified by the vibration of tiny bones called ossicles, and the increased sound then travels to the inner ear where the cochlea resides, lined with tiny hair packed with neurons. Each neuron is programmed to pick up a different frequency and the sound meets with the neuron that matches its own frequency. The cochlea then converts the vibrational energy to electrical impulses that travel to the brain, and from there, travel to the brain stem. This energy at the brain stem activates the limbic system. It is here that emotional and physical reactions are produced. Sound energy then moves on to the ouditory cortex of the brain where we become conscious of the sound and can recognize what we are hearing.

Music also does something else. As your brain is comprehending the music, the electrical energy released by the neurons creates brain waves. The brain waves created (alpha, beta, theta, and delta) will determine what your body is best primed to do at the particular moments. For instance, beta waves are best avoided during massage as they stimulate close mental focus, alpha waves are great for quite concentration, theta for meditation, and when you hit delta, its time to go to sleep.

Once through your brain, music impulses make their way down your spinal cord causing an impact on the autonomic nervous system. This, in turn, can impact heart rate, pulse, blood pressure, and muscle tension. As an example, listening to the Rolling Stones will increase autonomic nervous system activity driving the heart rate up, whereas Brahms Lullaby will slow it down.

When you are selecting music for your client, or yourself, you should be aware of certain factors so that you can be better determine what psycho and physiological effect it may have. Those items includes speed, rhythm, instrument selection, volume, complexity, harmony or melody, pitch and tone

Speed- What you are trying to determine is the best per minute. Based on studies from around the world, 80 BPM (beats per minute) is said to be the most comfortable listening speed- close to the rate the heart beats at. Thus music selections with beat counts of 80 or lower should provide induced relaxation. Breathing has also been found to entrain (match up, get in sync) with the beats of the music. Clients will entrain differently, syncing up by pulse or breath. You can easily find the beat of the music by using a watch or clock with a minute/second hand. Start the music and tap your fingers or feet as you feel a natural beat. Once you feel comfortable that you have the beat, watch the clock and count until a minute has passed. Now you have a very close determination of the beats per minute. If you can’t determine the beats per minute, that’s ok too. Un-metered music is popular with new age selection and can be very useful for producing theta and delta states.

Rhythm- The rhythm of music is determined by the length and accent of the sounds. Hot jazz is a good example of syncopated or complex rhythms, which require more attention and focus. Pick music with easy to follow rhythms, so that less attention is required and better relaxation takes place.

Volume- Sound waves are energy and impact your brain with electrical pulse. The higher the volume, the more pulse, the lower the volume, the less pulse. Therefore, loud music will stimulate, soft music will relax. How soft should the music be? Think of music as wallpaper. Do you want your wallpaper to be the first thing your client notices when they walk in the room? Probably not. Complexity- Have you been to a children’s band practice when every child wanted to play at once? This is a good example of music that is too complex. The ear doesn’t know what to listen to first. The brain is reeling, trying to discern all the different sounds or instruments. Now think of a classic trio playing a guitar, flute, and cello. This is easier to listen to. Keep your music simple and easy to mentally absorb so the body can focus on physical and emotional release.

Harmony- Harmony comes from two or more musical notes (sound) being played together, which sound like they go together and complement each other. Complementary sounds or harmonies are called constants. Notes that sound like they don’t go together are called dissonants. Look for constants in music as it is easier to listen to and the brain generally feels like it knows what’s coming next in the music and will not focus on waiting for the next ”off” note. Also, music is generally played in a major or minor key. A song played in a minor key often will sound more moving, heartrending or emotional. Consider music written in a minor key if your focus is meditative or emotional cleansing.

Melody- Ever hear a new song on the radio that sounded like a copy of an older tune you like? Probably because it followed the same melody. With a simple, or catchy melody we generally know the sequence of what the sound will be. Melody allows us to sing along in the car, even though we don’t know the words. Easy melodies allow better relaxation, as the brain just floats along listening easily.

Pitch and Tone- Think of a wood flute as compared to a piccolo. The flute will have a lower pitch (sound wave frequency of a tone) and the piccolo a higher pitch. Higher pitches tend to wake us up and make us more alert.
Now that you know a bit about the different factors of music, put some thought to the needs of the client when they arrive. Are they revved up from the drive, agitated from work, sad about a relationship, or some other matter? You can select the right music using your current knowledge, and also applying the Iso principle. The Iso principle is a way of viewing music like an elevator, matching music to the current emotional/physical state of the client, and then picking faster or slower music as a way of moving them up or down. As an example, greeting an anxious client with extremely slow music is much like pushing them down the elevator shaft. It is much better to take them down slowly, letting them enjoy the transition.

Pick a selection of music that matches your clients’ current state of mined, or how you know their emotional state generally is when they arrive. Beats per minute (BPM), pitch, or harmony is a good place to start the selection process. Gradually change the music. This may be after the client has sat for a while or while they are getting undressed. This allows them to adapt and shift into a new state of mind. Your selection of music may also change once they are on the table and the massage has started. Progressively slower music, with use of the other musically relaxing factors like volume, melody, and complexity, gets your clients on the way to deep relaxation.

Using the Iso principles does not mean you have to be constantly flipping between CDs. Many CD players are programmable so you can pick the selections you want from each disc. Or, pick music that has the Iso principle built in. Many relaxation CDs follow a faster to slower beats-per minute sequence. Find the music you like, and ask clients what they like too. The general principles for music work, but the client’s ears always have the final say in what sounds good to them.

With music all around us, in our lives at work or home, try to pay more attention to what you hear and what you play. Use music as a tool to balance and manage the mind and body. The massage experience can become much more beneficial for your clients when the total environmental experience is considered and created.

Happy Listening!