• We all know that music has the power to move us – but why is this the case?

  • Nemone Metaxas, therapist and BBC 6 Music presenter, explores this idea and more in her new series Journeys In Sound

I have always been fascinated by music and sound. My father describes how I would often sit with him listening to John Peel’s evening show when I couldn’t sleep. I remember spending my first pocket money on a cassette of The Police’s Zenyatta Mondatta. I scoured record shops in my teens and twenties for vinyl; funk and hip hop to begin with then dance music, which I would dream of sharing with like minded souls but which initially had their first outing at top volume on a single deck stereo in my bedroom.

Music moves me. I love to dance. I also found that I could express sadness and the tears flowed more easily when I was listening to music. I played my flute religiously after the death of my sibling in my early teens. I lost myself in sound. I found my voice through music.

It’s a life long obsession which has been my career for over twenty years; having worked my way from reception to studio at Kiss 102 FM in Manchester in the late 90s, through BBC Radio 1 to my spiritual home now; presenting on BBC Radio 6 Music for the last fifteen years. During the last decade, I’ve also qualified as an integrative psychotherapist.

It was during the writing of my dissertation on finding a voice and not talking about sibling death that I realised perhaps I had found a voice to express and explore my grief over the years; just not with words but with music. It heightened my curiosity to explore further the effect of music on our mind, body and soul. Consequently, combining both my passions is the premise of my new series “Journeys In Sound” on BBC 6 Music.

I could have started anywhere on the journey. I found it difficult at first

shaping and taming my thoughts and feelings about music. There was this sense of thoughts running wild with wanton abandon and without order but the music seemed to just flow, coming into focus much more easily. In some ways it felt like I had a soundtrack of music for the show before I was able to explain what I wanted to say in words.

Finding myself always drawn to a scientific framework - having grown up with an electrical engineer and microwave expert in my dad - I wanted to guard against the sense of comfort that comes from having a scientific explanation. I yearned to explore our experience of sound and music more fully.

I do not follow a scientific formula when DJing or programming the playlists for my shows; at least not one that I’m conscious of. Nor is science at the forefront of my mind when I’m with therapy clients. Something else is going on. There’s more than one route to understanding the relationship we have with music and why it makes us feel a certain way. So I set out to explore beyond the science in this series.

Journeys in Sound is a deeper dive into what’s happening in our mind, body and soul as we listen to our favourite music. In the first episode, I explore the effect of music on our brain, the roots of music making and evolution of music. How a piece like Stevie Wonder’s Superstition triggers our fight or flight response in a good way and how the brain’s interaction with our favourite music can help us relax more easily or run faster. Cue me heading off to compile a playlist to do just that…

Of course all this is accompanied by music to fire the synapses, move our bodies and enliven the soul. It’s soundtracked by records from the aforementioned Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Albertine Sarge, Ellen Allien, The Fall’s version of Lost In Music, Planningtorock, Max Cooper, Jon Hopkins, The Beastie Boys, Bach, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven.

In the second episode I look to understand more broadly how music affects our body. I was fascinated to learn about crafting music specifically to help us sleep; intentionally not keeping the tracks rhythmic or in time so we don’t get comfortable with the sound and follow the melody. Instead this music incorporates electronic sounds and textures, geophony - the sound of earth elements; wind, water, rain - and biophony - the sound of non human living organisms - so there’s a blurring of those to craft a dreamlike soundscape where there’s no clear definition. We’re also now battling a volume of sound in everyday life that threatens our sense of wellbeing profoundly so creating music to soften and soothe these effects is more important now than ever.

In the final episode, conscious of my tendency to be drawn to science (neuroscience in this case), I wanted to ensure I integrated thinking from different modalities and cultures as to how music affects the body; exploring how sound and music makes up our very being through vibration on many different levels. Understanding the idea that all music has been out of tune since the 17th century and how we might get back in tune with primordial vibrations to aid our health and wellbeing. At the very heart of this series is also the idea of how music can help us where we find ourselves now in this more fragmented and isolated world. The role both music and sound play in connecting us and supporting more cohesive communities.

How does all of this come into my work as therapist? Tuning into the sound of the client’s story. Curiosity about modulation in the client’s voice and any difference in my own. The exquisite and excruciating dance of regulation and dysregulation as musical and rhythmic quality of a session. Working in an embodied way, all senses are enlivened in the therapeutic space. Sound and music offer more layers by which we tell our narrative and how we navigate the world.

I hope this series provides a balm and place to escape in these extraordinarily challenging times and would love you to join me for the second episode of Journeys In Sound: Body Movin’ this Sunday 24th January on BBC 6 Music. Episode 1: Cheesecake For The Mind is available now at BBC Sounds.

Nemone Metaxas is a verified welldoing.org therapist in London and online

Further reading

How music therapy can treat the 'untreatable'

What does creativity look like in the brain?

Creativity and psychotherapy: two sides of the same coin

The neuroscience of emotions