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005: How to Use Music to Change Your Brain

By December 19, 2017February 3rd, 20232 Comments

We’ve all heard music makes you smarter, but most people don’t realize that it’s not that simple. You’ve got to participate.

In fact, there’s a science behind using music and sound to alter your states of consciousness. Josh Brill, teacher of Nada Yoga or the Yoga of Sound, will teach us how to use music for mindfulness and boosting your moods.

Learn More About Josh Brill

Josh Brill

Josh Brill

A master musician and dedicated teacher, Josh Brill has the unique gift to share the esoteric wisdom of Nada Yoga (Yoga of Sound) and the Mysticism of Sound and Music in ways that are understandable, relevant, and experiential.


[00:00:01] Melissa: Welcome to Mind Love Episode 5. Today’s episode is all about finding mindfulness through music.

[00:00:11] Female VO: Turn up your frequency with Mind Love, bite-sized brain hacks for seekers, dreamers, and doers. It’s time to give your mind a little love with your host Melissa Monte.

[00:00:28] Melissa: I love music. And thankfully studies show that music has powerful and visible effects on the brain. When we’re listening to music one of the first things that you can see is the release of dopamine, which gives us a nice little happiness boost. 

But studies have also linked it to boosting our immune systems by being associated with an uptake and immunity boosting antibodies. But learning to play an instrument can give you the most benefits, especially during the developmental stages of the brain. 

Studies have shown that musicians have more gray matter in the brain. This can lead to benefits like better auditory processing, learning, and memory. And this just adds to me love for music. 

In my household you will hear music playing all the time. Thankfully we live in a time where music is so accessible, from SoundCloud to Spotify. We have all the music that we could want right at our fingertips. Combined with smart home technology speakers like Alexa or Google Home, we can bathe in the music notes as often as we like.

I’m pretty sure my neighbors are tired of hearing me say, “Alexa, shuffle Discover Weekly.” “Shuffling Discover Weekly from Spotify.”

Note to self, don’t reference Alexa when she’s in the room and you’re trying to record a podcast. But first can we note how strange it is that we can hear music at all? 

It’s little acoustic vibrations in the air, these little waves of energy that tickle our eardrum. I was looking up how to explain how sound works and hearing works. 

And I found a YouTube video that explained it like this, “Somehow by tickling our eardrum it transmits energy down our hearing bone, which gets converted into a fluid impulse inside the cochlea, which then converts to an electrical signal in our auditory nerves that somehow wind up in our brains as a perception of a song.” 

Did you follow that? It’s cool. Me neither.

Today we’re talking to Josh Brill. He’s a master musician and sound healer, devoted to using music as a medium to facilitate inner peace, awareness, and consciousness.

Josh has been studying music for the last 30 years (teaching for 25 years), and has even developed his own musical mindfulness practices. 

On top of all that he’s an instructor of Nada Yoga, which is the yoga of sound. What better way to begin to raise our frequencies than with the most common form of frequency in sound and music.

Let’s dive in. In this episode here are three key things you will learn: How your inner tempo affects your perception of the world around you. How you can use music to alter your states of consciousness. And a specific mindfulness exercise using music that you can do at home.

This is an exercise that our guest usually reserves for his paid course or his private clients, so this is really exciting.

Welcome Josh. To get started can you give us a brief overview about what Nada Yoga is?

[00:03:37] Josh: Nada Yoga roughly translates to the yoga of sound. Nada in Sanskrit is basically sound or sound current. And yoga I’m sure as we know is this constant of union or connecting with. Nada Yoga is basically our connection with sound. And it really can take a lot of different forms.

Mantra practice for example is a form of Nada Yoga. And also it’s honing and finding your own internal sound is a practice of Nada Yoga.

[00:04:09] Melissa: I haven’t tried Nada Yoga but I’m really interested to do so because I love sound baths. And it is interesting what a broad range of effects sound has on us, whether it’s calming us during meditation, putting us into a trance-like state, or even kind of making us shrill up from the sounds of nails on a chalkboard.

How do sound frequencies affect our bodies?

[00:04:33] Josh: Different frequencies in that spectrum can help engage different parts of our body, and specifically consistent frequencies.

For example to create a little bit more calm in the body, longer tones that are a little bit warmer and rounder, maybe in the mid-frequency is really helpful for people. If you want to engage a stronger focus higher tones like a crystal bowl can really serve that.

[00:05:03] Melissa: When we listen to soundscapes we tend to think, “Of course it’s calming. What’s not calming about ocean waves and birds chirping?” But it’s actually more than that.

Pure tones can have a really powerful impact on our minds and bodies as well. For example a pure tone of 528 Hertz is said to be the miracle tone. It’s used by genetic scientists to mend DNA and strengthen cell walls to boost immunity.

A pure tone of 639 Hertz is said to attract love and raise positive energy. And a tone of 320 Hertz may awaken your divinity. And some use to help induce enlightenment. 

You can find a ton of these pure tones on YouTube. And the great thing about that is you can even find different mixes that people have done to make it a little bit more interesting. And some have even added bird sounds.

Of course we all know bird sounds are soothing, but have you ever thought of why? There’s actually a psychological aspect to this, because when birds are chirping it tends to mean that everything is all and well. But when birds stop chirping danger could be looming.

Not only does music have a really powerful effect on our bodies physiologically, Josh says that it can also be a teacher. And it can teach us a lot about the inner workings of our minds.

[00:06:35] Josh: I think it’s important to understand, when I speak about music oftentimes I’m considering music as this capital M music. It’s a presence. It’s an intelligence. It’s something that is beyond the entertainment that we face with, but is this unique life force that is music.

Approaching that as a teacher is just a phenomenal experience. Because one of the things that music holds, and I think what a true guru holds is truth and objectivity.

While music of course has a lot of subjectivity to it, when one takes on a practice of music you find truths about yourself.

Just a real practical example, if you’re working on your time with something, most people will find that their timing is not quite aligned. And music holds that mirror of truth for us.

And then it teaches us, how do we find that level of engagement to have our time or our rhythm aligned? So then it becomes this inward journey for us to search with our own internal mechanisms to basically find what we need to do.

And what I found, a lot of it has to do with where we place our attention and how we’re able to hold our attention.

[00:07:56] Melissa: I’m sure playing music as long as you have you’ve uncovered a lot of truths about yourself. Can you name any?

[00:08:04] Josh: Oh my god, how much time do we have?

[00:08:06] Melissa: As much as you need.

[00:08:10] Josh: It’s taught me a lot about attention. If we consider attention, oftentimes we hear the word attention span for example. Span is an interesting word because span actually is a spatial word, spanning a distance.

Time and space are intrinsically linked. For example when I look at attention span I’m also thinking about the tempo of attention, or how long we’re able to hold a moment. And what music has really shown me is, one, how to basically develop the ability to expand attention, to expand a more present moment. And also how to regulate that internally.

Just for an example, music has really shown me how to have more calm in my body. And tempo and our state of being are very much linked. A quick example would be somebody who’s very anxious. Their tempo tends to be very fast. And you can even see that in the extreme of anxiety that people begin to shake. They’re vibrating at a tempo that it’s creating this internal restriction.

Somebody who’s very calm generally is in a slower space. And music basically has shown me how to connect with that aspect, that internal mechanism, and how to regulate it, as well as how to work with that aspect with others.

[00:09:39] Melissa: A lot of people feel like since they didn’t have a natural ability with music when they were little, that they just have no hope of starting it. 

What do you have to say about that and what’s your story? How did you get into music in the first place?

[00:09:54] Josh: It’s been an interesting journey. I began playing guitar when I was eight and I just had a calling to do it. I definitely was not musically inclined. 

Some people are born or they develop a gift a rarely early age where they have a great ear and a good sense of time. And just a good sense of musicality. 

I don’t feel I’m being humble here but I wasn’t one of those people. Music came quite difficult to me. 

[00:10:21] Melissa: What kind of minds did you need to have in order to keep going all of those years when it was coming difficult to you?

[00:10:27] Josh: Actually it turned out to be this wonderful gift of course. Because I feel like having that sort of obstacle or challenge it allowed me to really learn what it’s like to learn music or how to learn music, and what’s the most efficient way. I’ve always been really interested in optimization. 

My path with music has basically been in my younger years this puzzle of, I know this thing is possible and I’m not quite getting it. I just haven’t found the solution yet. 

[00:11:02] Melissa: Yet. I like that. That’s the key word. Studies show that music actually does affect the activity in our brain, our inner tempo, or vibration so to speak. How does our inner vibration affect our perception of the world around us?

[00:11:18] Josh: This really hits to what I’ve been studying a lot. And actually in more recent times really getting into the neuroscience of this. I think our tempo of perception is what I’ve been calling it is really the crux of what’s happening here. 

If somebody’s tempo of perception is faster for example, they’re going to perceive time in smaller bits of information. It’s very similar to how a camera works with exposure rate. When we have a longer exposure more data, more information is coming in. And when it’s shorter it captures little bursts of information.

You could imagine that somebody with a faster or a higher tempo of perception, their time is becoming a little bit more compressed. And therefore things seem to take longer in that relative nature of time to them. A great example of would be somebody who’s very anxious, who’s waiting in line, five minutes could feel like 20 to them.

And conversely when we begin to actually learn how to slow down our tempo, which is more associated with calm state we are actually experiencing a longer moment of time, a longer duration of that present moment.  Time doesn’t seem to have as much pressure on us, if that makes any sense.

[00:12:44] Melissa: Of course I’m looking at this like how can I develop a new mini superpower out of this knowledge. But do you think it’s possible to actually read people’s personalities based on their musical taste upon first meet?

[00:12:58] Josh: Yeah. When you begin to attune to tempo you could read people through how they play music, how they speak, their movements, even more subtle cues like blinking rate and various things like that. 

And I would like to preface we all are in different tempos, and there’s not a judgment about one or the other. But to know that we do seem to be living in a world that seems to be moving faster and faster. 

And I feel for a lot of people that tempo tend to be pushed beyond a place of balance or internal harmony, and creates some level of dysregulation, which I think we’re actually seeing with ADHD.

I do want to note that the various levels of tempo, one is not better than the other but they offer different levels of functionality according to where they’re at, if that makes any sense.

[00:13:56] Melissa: Speaking about people with ADD or ADHD, is there a way to use music to balance them out?

[00:14:04] Josh: Yeah, absolutely. And this is really where the practical aspect of my work comes into play, especially using an instrument. Because what happens is when we’re swept away in our temple of perception we really don’t have a reference point to it. 

For example somebody who is ADD, they’re just in that vibration, they’re just in that kind of space so it’s hard for them to make an adjustment because that’s where they are. With music, especially with an instrument such as a guitar or lately after getting involved using this method with ukulele we can begin to basically find where that tempo is for the person. 

And then using the laws of music which in this case would be rhythm begin to gradually slow that down in a controlled way so that people actually are able to lower that vibration for lack of a better word through this sort of a neuro biofeedback mechanism that is music.

[00:15:11] Melissa: What I’m hearing you say is that decade that I was on shit tons of Adderall, I should’ve just been listening to steady, slow tones of music. Great, lesson learned.

Aside from curing my ADD, that’s a slight exaggeration, but we’re seeing how music can affect the tempo, rhythm, and the vibrations of our body. Because we are all just energy, right? So we are vibrations.

If they can regulate our internal vibrations or tempo, how can it help to regulate the group as a whole? 

Music is traced back to ancient civilization even before language. And part of what music was able to do back then was to bring people together without the use of language. 

And as we all know there’s a lot of divide in our country right now unfortunately. Is there a way that we can use music to connect people in modern times?

[00:16:10] Josh: Yeah, in a lot of ways really. One aspect of music is definitely it’s a social engagement, which I think is really, really important. And I feel like if we explore the consciousness of music as its guide in humanity it has had the effect of bringing people together. And that’s been a very important thing for survival. 

If we think back in the tribal days of humanity, tribes are very important for survival. And music was the way to basically organize the tribe, bring people together before a written word. It was a great way for them to encode information, tell stories, kind of document things through songs. 

The concert for example, we have a band playing and there’s a certain rhythm that’s playing. People are dancing and they’re all experiencing the same rhythm. So basically people are being tuned together through that vibration, through that rhythm. 

And when people find levels of entrainment basically whether rhythms begin to match, and that could be through dancing or just even having that shared experience, I think something magical happens. Like a space opens up, and this is hard to quantify it scientifically. 

Although you can at some level because basically what happens when people listen to the same music, we have a similar brain wave entrainment. And brain waves are a big part of the temple of perception. 

As a musician or people playing music together it’s kind of that but like times a hundred. The act of playing music takes a fair amount of inner engagement, connecting into the sound, connecting into your body, allowing a note to be released into the world, listening to that note.

And then if you’re playing music with someone else one of the things I learned in school with my jazz training was basically how to divide my listening so that I can listen to someone else equally as much as I’m listening to myself, if not more.

When people come and play music together they’re developing deep listening skills. And as we know that, that listening is one of the primary foundations of communication.

[00:18:27] Melissa: Okay. I’m really glad that we’re talking about the differences between listening to music and actually playing music.

We’ve all heard that music makes us smarter. But there’s a misconception about this. A lot of us think of the Mozart effect, which was some study 20 years ago that thought Mozart temporarily boost cognitive function.

So then the media and parents got crazy and wanted to get their kids into Harvard by listening to music. But it’s not exactly how it works. 

Listening to music passively doesn’t actually make you smarter. But actively studying music does. Among a slew of benefits, it helps you process sounds better. And this can be helpful in a lot of different areas including paying attention to things when other noise is going on, following and remembering conversations or things that you’ve heard, and learning language accents.

Mandarin, Chinese is a great example of this because if you change a tone in a word it changes the entire meaning, from scold, to horse, to mother. 

I guess the first and the last are kind of the same depending on who your mom was. And if you’re not already sold that music is the magical master of the universe then hear this.

According to Oliver Sacks more of the brain is involved in perception and response to music than the language or anything else. That’s pretty crazy. But it makes sense because when you think about it music’s an art form that we’ve been working on as a species for over a thousand years. So it would only make sense that our brains have kind of evolved to take in more of this, or to be affected by more of this, I guess.

And I think that a lot of people think, “I’m 30 years old. I’ve never learned music. Can I even start now? Is there hope?” Because you hear a lot more about child prodigies and people that have been playing the piano since they were little, and things like that. But here is hope. Tons of people have learned an instrument in the middle of their life or even towards the end.

But I know, starting something as daunting as an instrument can be kind of intimidating especially later on in life. But I have a book that I’m going to link to in the show notes that I’ve heard great reviews from. 

It’s by a guy name James Rhodes. He is a best-selling writer and a famous pianist. I’ve never liked that word even though I am one. Anyways, he has a book that claims to teach anyone to play a difficult piece of music in less than six weeks, even with zero knowledge of music and having never touched a piano before. So there’s that, and I’ll link to it in the show notes.

And I highly encourage you to try to pick up an instrument, try to just learn something small, or even just use it for the sounds of the tones that we talked about earlier. Because when you start to develop your musical talent it can be amazing, especially to get into flow state.

If you’re not familiar with flow state don’t worry, just subscribe to this podcast because I will be having a full episode devoted to this. And I’ll probably mention it a lot, but for those who don’t know in positive psychology flow is also known as being in the zone. 

And you hear it most with athletes and musicians, but it can happen with anybody. And if you ever go to a yogi style festival especially, but any festival, you’re almost guaranteed to come across somebody with flow toys, or even a booth selling flow toys. 

And these can be either [Unintelligible 00:22:26]. But there are these toys where you basically get them going like nunchuks, I don’t really know how else to explain it. But it gets your mind into this flow where you don’t really have to think. You can just go with the music.

But basically flow is supposed to be the state of optimal experience. There’s an entire book dedicated to flow, appropriately titled Flow. And I highly recommend it. 

I’m going to link to it in the show notes because the author is really hard to pronounce, and the spelling is completely different than the pronunciation. It’s [Unintelligible 00:23:04]. But it doesn’t look like it’s spelled like that whatsoever. So go to the show notes for that.

Being in flow is when you’re performing an activity and you’re fully immersed with an energized focus of full involvement, and an actual enjoyment in the process of an activity. 

It’s when you’re completely absorbed in whatever you’re doing. And the book gives a bunch of tidbits about exactly what flow is, and how to get there, and how to use it to improve or increase your happiness levels.

Back to the topic at hand, music is one of the best ways to get into flow state. Now back to Josh. Josh, tell me about the first time you experienced flow state, or any sort of breakthroughs with music.

[00:23:56] Josh: There was my sophomore year in college, I went to Berklee College of Music. I don’t know, I just reached this place and perhaps it’s that sophomore slump that we hear about. 

But I didn’t want to be there anymore. I love music. But I was finding myself really frustrated like that’s all that everybody talked about or did there. I know it kind of sounds paradoxical, and especially if you know my story where in high school I couldn’t wait to get to college so I could just focus on music all the time.  

And then I go there and I basically was really understanding that music itself is only part of the equation and I began getting really in philosophy and meditation at that age. 

And I understood how important life experience was for the musical process, and that if music is just a means to an end within itself it didn’t quite get there for me, and I started losing my passion, and even finding myself angry.

I needed to get away for a weekend, and I visited a friend in Maryland. I didn’t bring a guitar, and probably that was my first time without having a guitar in my hands for years. But I just needed to not think about music or just really clear my head.

There was this afternoon where he was studying all day. So I was just left alone in this dorm room, and he had a guitar in the corner. And something just called for me to pick it up. I picked it up and I just started playing. 

And basically what transpired for the next six or seven hours straight was this waterfall of music flowing through me. And it was an experience that I never had until that point where basically I literally was just the observer and my body was moving on its own. Music was flowing through me. Things were happening on the guitar that I never could’ve done up until that point before. 

It literally felt like this faucet of music was just opened. And it was just completely free and flowing through me. And it felt like I was connecting in with the genius of music, not that I was a genius in that moment, but I was really connected to this transcendent of music.

And that day made pretty much the defining mark in my exploration of music. One, realizing how much is possible if we just find the inner alignment, how much is not actually us, we have to do the work to develop certain levels of technical facility and things like that. 

But the true nature of music is so transcendent, and that day basically I would say led me on this path to research, discover, explore, and experiment with music to really try to find how to engage from that place all the time rather than using my mind or using the lower aspects of music.

[00:27:07] Melissa: And this is the power of flow state. I remember the first time I felt like I got into flow, and I was playing for hours, which is a lot for the attention span of a young child. But I used to use it when I would have a bad day or something bad would happen, the things that little kids get upset over.

I can remember one instance in particular when a popular kid named Nick, yes, I’m using his real first name, made fun of me for not being able to shave my legs yet.

So I played the piano for three hours, and it made me realize some things like he wasn’t that important, and all I needed to do was steal my mom’s razor, but it got me through.

What are some of the ways that you personally use music to get through things or to alter your states of consciousness?

[00:28:00] Josh: One, I think there’s an inherent creative joy to pick up an instrument and see what happens. And I think sometimes that is enough. And other times I find myself if I am going through a slump, sometimes writing a song, or just kind of allowing some expression of that to come out has been really, really healing. 

And a little bit more scientific level I found, for example if I am feeling like in a slumpy place and a little bit lethargic, if I work on music at a faster tempo that can help engage myself out of that. 

So just circling back to the temple thing, super out of balance, fast tempo is let’s say anxiety, and out of balance slow tempo we could look at as depression. So we’re looking for that sweet spot of in between.

I have different practices that I’ve explored. I have learned and developed, that really helped move the energy basically to a place that feels a little bit more in alignment with where I would like to be.

[00:29:09] Melissa: With everything going on in our current events today, our president, and all of the natural disasters around the world, how has connection with others even more important, and how can people maybe use music to deal with all these walls going on?

[00:29:26] Josh: I know, these walls. Obviously we’re going through some deep transitions at a global level. And we really don’t know what is going to happen. There’s a lot of people making up stories about it but we don’t know. 

If we react to the stories we’re imagining we’re basically going further in that habitual mechanism as we talked about before. A proper music practice can give us the chance to have some equanimity within what seems to be going on or our perceptions, and hold a little bit more center focus and calm within that.

Obviously it’s hard not to talk about the political climate these days, but one of the real striking things for me during the previous election is just noticing how polarized people have become. “It’s my side versus your side. I’m right, you’re wrong.” It’s just turn into this deep split. And to me that feels very mechanistic. It feels very mechanical.

And I feel like it can be very easy for people to get overwhelmed by that. So having a musical practice, having a musical experience I really feel can give us some freedom from that overwhelm, and perhaps be able to listen deeper.

And I feel like in that deeper listening we can basically start making the connections between the sides that are so split and hopefully work towards a greater harmony basically.

[00:31:02] Melissa: And that’s a really good point. Because it seems like somewhere along the way we forgotten how to just shut the hell up and just be and listen and hear. We have sounds coming at us from everywhere, street noises, machine noises, phone alerts. Learning to listen is something worth cultivating.

It’s one of the reasons I was most excited to start this podcast because I’m a talker if you can’t tell. And interviewing people is really teaching me to listen and to actively participate in listening.

Of course I’m the one that handles the editing so I get to interject at any time, but still. So after 30 minutes of learning that music is everything where do we start? Speaking to someone with zero musical experience at all, how would they start to use music for mindfulness in their daily lives?

[00:32:08] Josh: One of the first things is no matter what instrument they’re playing, assuming an external instrument for the voice become just a little bit more specific.

We’ll use a guitar for example, before you try to play a chord it’s good to feel the guitar to really feel the strings, and to do that with both hands that you become acquainted with the feeling of the strings, the actual sensation of the mind and your body. 

And then beginning by playing one note and listening to that note as deeply as you can. It’s one of my primary meditations that I work with people. For guitar it could be playing one string with full intentions. So when you’re playing the string you are aware of every bit of the physicality that it takes to make the sound happen.

And once the note happens you want to listen to that note throughout the whole duration of the note, which is usually longer than people are used to. And in doing so what you end up doing is actually elongating your attention.

And then as the note drifts away you want to actually listen to that really subtle place where the note absorbs back into silence. A note basically comes from silence. There’s silence. The note is brewing. And then the note basically dies and goes back into the silence. And we want to really pay attention to all three of those steps. That’s a really good primary mindfulness approach to music.

[00:33:48] Melissa: We’ve covered a lot about music today and its benefits, whether you’re a newbie or you’ve been playing your whole life. But I think the important message is that you should start. Just pick up an instrument and start somewhere.

Because music isn’t just pretty, it’s passionate, and it’s fiery, and it’s transformative. Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata was written as he realized he was going deaf, and was thinking about suicide. And in the process of writing that song he decided to live.

So definitely start somewhere. And lucky for our listeners Josh has created some courses that are a great place to start out. And you can find those at joshbrill.com, which I’ll link to in the show notes. Josh, tell us a little bit about your courses.

[00:34:35] Josh: I have a course that I developed called The Yoga of Guitar. It is a course that’s specifically made for anyone whether they have no guitar experience or musical experience, up to somebody who’s advanced to give them this experience of really how to explore music as a meditation, as a mindfulness practice.

I’m currently in production of the same concept I use in the ukulele as the instrument, which I find to be really fabulous because the ukulele is so accessible. And it’s fun. It has a really beautiful tone to it.

[00:35:08] Melissa: Well, on that note, musical pun intended, let’s queue up the music. You can find all of the links mentioned in this episode in our show notes at mindlove.com/005. 

A lot of work goes into this show, so if I could ask one favor, please hit subscribe. It really, really helps with the growth of my podcast.

We also have a great Facebook group that keeps you in the conversation and also has some freebies here and there. So go to mindlove.com/fbgroup. Thanks for giving your mind a little love today and I’ll see you next week.

[00:35:46] Female VO: Thanks for tuning into your higher frequency with Mind Love. Head to mindlove.com for a free gift to keep your vibes up until next week.

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