Every little cell in my body is happy: Understanding the power of music for brains, with Allison Davies

By ParentTV on 10 Nov 2020
Categories: General Parenting

Remember this tune that ParentTV expert Allison Davies shared a few months ago? 

If there’s a sweeter and more helpful earworm, we’d like to hear it! When Allison posted a video of herself singing this song on social media during the early stages of the pandemic, it went viral incredibly quickly. A few months on, a lot of us still have it in our heads, and we thought it would be interesting to dig a bit deeper into the success of this tune and what’s behind it – the power of music for brains!

Allison Davies is a Neurologic Music Therapist and Brain Care Specialist and creator of the Brains = Behaviour program. Allison’s work is all about supporting your child through the care and understanding of their brains and neurological development. It all sounds super complex and science-y, but Allison makes it clear and simple, we promise! Her explanations of brains as an inbox for sensory input is something we’ve gone back to many times. It just makes SENSE (get it?).

If you haven’t already come across her videos on the ParentTV website, do yourself a favour and click on over when you’ve read this. Whether you’re a parent of a neurodivergent child or not, Allison’s videos will help you understand the way childrens’ brains are interacting with the world around them, and how their MANY (Hint: there’s more than 5) sensory systems affect them. Plus, she’s done a tremendous amount of work with music as a therapeutic tool and has some amazing insights in this area, too. Okay, we’re sounding like Allison’s hype team or personal PR company or something, so we’ll stop raving and get back to the topic at hand!

So, why was that little ditty so popular, anyway?

Well, Allison explains, there are a few things going on with the Every Little Cell song. First up is the musical aspect. ‘The brain is a musical being, and music is one of its biological languages. It’s like a mother tongue,’ explains Allison. Our brains are programmed to be ultra-receptive to music, so when we add melody to mantras, they’re much more likely to stick.

The benefit of having an affirmation or mantra that is sung or has a melody attached is that melody activates much more of our brain than spoken words. A sung or melodic mantra is like a mantra on steroids.

Allison Davies

Singing also prompts a dopamine release, and dopamine contributes to neuroplasticity, or brain ‘rewiring’. The dopamine release motivates us to repeat the experience, so we sing the words again and cement the message into our brain. Magic! Or science, really.

As well as helping us opt into the message we’re trying to send ourselves (‘I will only watch one episode and then go to bed! I will only watch one episode and then go to bed!’), repetition has a soothing, warm-blanket kind of effect on our brains. This is ideal in times of uncertainty, and probably accounted for some of the popularity of the song during the stressful early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia. ‘The repetitive nature of the lyrics creates a sense of safety for our brains,’ Allison says. ‘Repetition means predictability for brains, and predictability translates to calm and control.’ If your kids are prone to a bit of the ol’ anxiety-monster, this can be a super helpful tool for their kit. ‘As soon as we’re even a little bit anxious, our prefrontal cortex switches off and analysis and decision-making becomes much harder,’ Alison says. ‘These experiences then perpetuate the anxiety, so it’s better if we can keep that part of the brain online in the first place.’

The wonderful thing about a song like this is that we regulate our breathing just by singing it, Allison says.

When we sing, we have to control our breath. This is great for kids, because they’re regulating their respiratory system without even realising it.

Allison Davies

When we control our breath, Allison continues, this activates the vagus nerve, which also helps reduce anxiety. ‘The controlled breathing in singing helps blood to become oxygenated and spread throughout the body, improving circulation.’

But wait, there’s more…

Have you ever noticed how kids (and adults) can turn a bad mood around just by singing a favourite song in the car on the way to school? That’s because melody also activates the limbic system, Allison explains, which allows us to feel and move our emotions. What about how slower music can calm children down and faster music can excite them? That’s because the neural connection between what we hear and our motor cortex (that controls our movements) is very dominant, so when we sing a slower song, we can feel it in our bodies, Allison explains. 

Music can help kids to express themselves and communicate. 

As we’ve mentioned earlier, it can help reduce anxiety, but it can also just bring joy. 

Music is for anyone, at any time. So, next time you or your kids need a little pick-me-up, you know what to do – sing it loud and sing it proud, and make every little cell in your body happy and well!