Music is the language of the soul. It is a vital part of the human experience. However, there is so much more to music than meets the eye, or in this case, the ears. For today’s episode, Music Therapist Tim Ringgold joins host Rodney Flowers to break down how music can be a powerful tool for overcoming stress and building resilience. Tim is the host of the Reduce Your Stress Podcast, where he helps his listeners deal with stress through music. How the subconscious perceives sound is much more complex than one would think. At the same time, it is our hard-wired primal responses that make music therapy so effective. Learn all about this fascinating niche and find out how it can help you.
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Reducing Stress And Empowering Resilience Through Music Therapy With Tim Ringgold
I have a music therapist in the studio with me. He is a board-certified music therapist. He’s a columnist, an author, the host of the Reduce Your Stress podcast and the Stress Elimination Summit. He has provided music therapy to thousands of teens and adults to help them lower anxiety and reduce pain. Tim is also an award-winning international speaker having shared the stage with some of the top minds on music, the brain and personal development including Tony Robbins. Without further ado, let’s welcome Tim Ringgold to the show. Welcome, Tim.
It’s so great to be here. Thanks so much for having me.
It’s great to have you here. Music therapy, I can’t wait to dive into that. How do you reduce stress? How do you do all of this stuff with music? I’ve had all kinds of therapy. I’ve had occupational therapy, physical therapy, psychological therapy, you name it, I’ve had it. Music therapy, not so much. Why do I need a music therapist? What is a music therapist and why do you need one?
I’ve been on stage since I was four years old. Music is in my bones. I didn’t even hear about music therapy until I was 30. It’s a niched field. First of all, there are only about 8,000 board-certified music therapists in the United States and the easiest way to describe it is to draw an analogy to a physical therapist, which you and I both worked with before. A physical therapist takes exercise and points exercise at a problem specifically. You don’t need a physical therapist to exercise but if you’re dealing with a certain diagnosis, injury or problem, the targeted use of exercise directed by a physical therapist causes change. I can move my right shoulder properly because of a physical therapist. I couldn’t do it any other way. I couldn’t figure out the problems I was having in my shoulder years ago, it was a physical therapist that solved the problem of my shoulder not working anymore.
Music therapist, very similar, goes to school, does the same things as a physical therapist, gets a degree in music therapy, does an internship, passed up board certification exam to point music at a problem. You don’t need a music therapist to enjoy music but you may at certain points in your life be going through either a diagnosis, a challenge or a problem where the targeted use of music will help you solve that problem. My specialty is understanding the science of music and how it affects the brain and the body. We all know what’s good for our mood and our spirit. I’ve never introduced anybody to music but I know how to point the right music to the right person the right way at the right time to cause a change in their life.
Here on the show, we’re about bouncing back, being resilient, persistent, overcoming and dominating challenges. How can music help us accomplish those goals?Music resets the nervous system faster than any oral medication. Click To Tweet
In our modern world, there’s a word that’s ubiquitous over 2020 that all adults are dealing with, which is stress. Stress is a phenomenon that has a healthy and unhealthy side. You have to stress your muscles, bones and spirit to strengthen them. We build strength in the presence of adversity and resistance. That’s what resistance training is. There’s a healthy side of stress, which there’s a technical term for it called eustress. Healthy stress makes you stronger. There’s this unhealthy side of stress that wears us out. It triggers all kinds of things in our body and in our brain that are counterproductive for us physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually. The beauty is that music, when used correctly, turns off the stress response in our nervous system. I want you to think about it like this. Your nervous system and my nervous system, we all know we have one. How many people paid attention in school to what it does? Like, “I feel things,” but there’s a lot more to it.
The easiest way to describe it is you’ve got this three-speed bike. It’s got three gears. The first gear is the default gear that you and I roll when we wake up, we’re into our default mode, which is rest and digest. That’s a phrase you might’ve heard before for the main first gear. I’ll try not to use the jargon because nobody remembers the jargon. First gear, rest, digest, creative mode, connection mode, when we feel safe and we reach out into the world, we think about the future and we imagine what we can do. That’s the first mode then a threat occurs in our life. It could be mentally or physically. We switch gears and we go into stress mode and that is called protect. Not connect but protect and not create but react.
That’s the thing where we fight or we flee. People have heard of the fight or flight response. Why that’s so important is when we get stressed, we no longer think creatively. We stop creating, reacting and our body produces an unhealthy chemical in excess called cortisol, which wears out our immune system and causes systemic inflammation. We get hot and bothered on the inside. It exacerbates all kinds of physical conditions. When we’re stressed, we send our worst emails, we make our worst decisions and we say the worst things we wish we could hit the undo switch on because we’re in reactivity mode. The part of our brain that considers consequence shuts offline.
The game becomes how do we change the game from being stuck in reactive mode? We need to change gears. We need to reset our nervous system. Music resets the nervous system faster than any oral medication. The only other thing that does it is our own breath if we learn how to breathe properly. The beauty is that most of us have a great relationship with music. We love it. What I get to do is teach people how to harness what they already love in a very specific way and time and there are three different things we can do and we’ll get into that. That’s the real nugget. You’re either in creative and connection mode in your day or you’re in reaction and protection mode in your day. Which one’s sustainable? Which one is going to create better collaboration? Which one’s going to create better relationships? Which one’s going to create better physical, emotional, social and spiritual results. Creative and connection mode. We want to be able to change gears and be able to be in that zone as often as possible.
As you described this, I think about how I use music. I’ll be looking at the morning. That’s my highest energy time of the days. It’s something very inspirational but high energy at the same time. I may turn on some Earl Thomas, something charging me up. I listen to that while I’m in the gym throughout my workout. After that, I’m looking for something a little more downswing. Something a little bit more common but it’s not meditation-type music. Something a little bit less energy but at the same time, it’s a vibe. Cool. I’m feeling good because I’ll get ready to go start my day. I’m on the right track. I still got that level of energy going on but then as I go throughout the day or if I get into space where I want extreme mental concentration, I may tunnel some music that’s a replication of nature. Something that is going to stimulate me mentally. Physically, I don’t need that level of energy, just something that is playing and I’m in tune that’s to supporting that stimulation.
When I’m preparing for bed, I’m going to do some meditation. It is a lot lower energy and it’s something more calming from doing a massage. It’s soothing. I never thought about needing a music therapist for that but as you were explaining these triggers at different stages it’s making me more aware of the therapeutic way that I have been using music without even realizing that I’m using it in a therapeutic way. It’s personal preference but it’s therapeutic.
You’re prescribing yourself music all day long based on what you’re trying to accomplish. You’re picking the right music at the right time for the right person, which is you. Music is very subjective. My music does for me, your music does for you but your music may not do the same for me. In fact, it may do the opposite because music is so personal. The joke is that’s why God invented headphones so that I can enjoy my music and you don’t have to. What I learned early on in my career, I was working in a hospital with cancer patients who undergo a massive amount of stress and anxiety in addition to pain and nausea through the chemotherapy that they’re undergoing. I was working with a patient and I realized that I was only going to see that patient for about fifteen minutes once. That was the only exposure for that patient.
I remember she’s a 22-year-old young woman. She was only going to get fifteen minutes with a music therapist but she had an iPod which meant she had 24/7 access to the music itself. I thought, “I can only see so many people one-on-one, I can’t scale my impact if I try to do the fishing for everybody and do the music therapy one-on-one. What I need to do is teach people how to fish. I need to teach people how to use their own music at the time for them when they’re on their own.” My patient was like, “What am I going to do at 2:00 AM?” I’m like, “You’re going to reach for your iPod and here’s what you’re going to do. I’m going to teach you how to do it so you won’t need me.”
What was interesting was I saw her two weeks later in the infusion center getting her chemotherapy and she was so chill. She had her blanket up, she had her beanie on, she had this smile on her face. Her eyes were closed and I could see the white outline of her earbuds tracing on each cheek. I knew she was plugged into her music. I felt like the cowboy who’s like, “My work is done here. I’m needed somewhere else where someone doesn’t realize how to reach for music to help themselves.” What I’ve found in my journey is not a lot of people need a music therapist with them, they just need to learn how to use their own music when they’re on their own. Most people already have an intuitive sense. They’ve been doing it already. They’d been using a certain type of music to work out to, a different type of music to work and to relax to and they discovered that on their own. When they hear me speak and I go through the science of it, it validates their lived experience and they can reach for it more confidently.
That’s exactly what you’re doing for me. I’m thinking about over the past how my range of different types of music has expanded. It’s been for me, reaching for certain types of mood music at certain times when I’m doing certain things, that’s it. A lot of the types of music are similar but yet certain types won’t work. It has to be this specific one when I’m doing a specific thing. It’s exciting because I’m listening to different types of music. It’s a joy to experience it. “I never thought I would listen to this or I would like this or it would have this effect on me.” Knowing that is empowering because if I’m studying or preparing for a talk or for writing, jotting down notes and brainstorming type of things, I have a playlist on my phone. Some of it is classified as this activity. That activity includes a playlist of songs that I’m doing it and it works pretty much every single time.
It’s functional music. It’s music with utility. Throughout human history, music has served a purpose. It’s functional. Only in the last couple of hundred years did the idea of entertainment or education occur. There weren’t music teachers and there weren’t concerts. Those are recent inventions in modern culture but for tens of thousands of years, all humans engaged in music-making together. It provided a powerful social glue to connect groups to each other. It provided a form of communication. All moms sing to their babies in all cultures and they all sing the same way. It’s fascinating. All babies sing before they speak in all cultures. This idea of music is this framework. It’s like a pre-language that we have built-in us that we utilize as we need it throughout our lifespan.
In the modern culture, we created an industry around music that perverted the main use for music, which is a therapeutic functional tool throughout the journey and then it made it into something else which was a product. We productized music through music technology and through the idea of concerts and performances. It created an illusion that some have it, which is talent or even now, people have to say the music gene and most don’t. It created this almost the schism between us and the reality is that there’s no one gene for music.Music, when used correctly, actually turns off the stress response in our nervous system. Click To Tweet
Music’s far too complex to be reduced to a single gene. All humans have all the genes they need to make music. Your heart beats on rhythm, you chew in rhythm and you sleep in rhythm. If you have an itch, you scratch in perfect rhythm. Nobody’s like, “Don’t look at me. I got two left hands when I scratch. No, turn away. I’m all embarrassed.” Your body runs in rhythm. It’s the fundamental organizing principle of everything that happens in your body, from the cellular level to the organs, to the systems to your day. Rhythm is this functional roadmap for health and wellbeing and it’s the foundation of music. We can tap into a rhythm, any of us at any time. We connect with music at a very powerful level. It’s something that each and every human being has the right and the ability to dial in and tap into as they need.
Could you explain to us the link between music and the subconscious mind?
No because I’m not trained in the subconscious mind. I would be talking out of my backside, to be perfectly honest with you. It would have to be talking to somebody who has parallel training in music and in the subconscious mind, which I don’t have. In our training, it’s more of a neuroscience base. My background is understanding what gets turned on in the brain physically and what that does for us throughout our day. For example, when you to the music you enjoy, the chemicals that your brain releases are dopamine and oxytocin. These two chemicals in our brain are vital chemicals for survival.
Dopamine is the pleasure chemical that tells us, “Do that again.” It’s tied to motivation and reward. It’s a primal chemical to guide us behaviorally to do certain things and not do other things. What’s interesting is that the part of the brain that releases this chemical in three specific instances when we eat chocolate, when we have sex and when we listen to the music we enjoy or make music ourselves. That’s primal. The question becomes when we eat chocolate, that’s sugar, our bodies are sugar-burning so sugar-based, that’s survival, sex, procreation, the prime directive music. What’s going on there?
What’s going on there is that humans are pack animals. We dress nice but we’re still animals. In the animal kingdom, we are pack animals. We live in groups and in relationships with other humans from cradle to grave. We depend on countless, innumerable other humans every single day to enjoy the quality of life that we have. One of the ways that we connect with other humans effortlessly and easily is through music. Think about going to a concert. You can walk into an arena and let’s say you’re in row 25 and you’ve got seats C and D. You’re buddies with whoever sitting in A and B because you’re all in that same arena that night because of your shared love for that artist. When the house lights down and the intro music kicks on, it’s a party and you’ve never met, except you’re totally connected at that moment through that music.
Music drops that social protection between us and we can connect with other human beings in ever easier ways. That chemical that’s going off in your brain is called oxytocin. That’s the love drug or the hug drug, that’s the feeling of being connected. As a human being, there’s this existential fear which is, “Am I alone in all of this? I’m alone in my body, am I alone in this world?” When we connect with another human being some way through our heart and our body, we’re not alone. We’re connected to something outside of ourself and music facilitates that without any words required.
Tell us about how we could use music in terms of our recovery. Resilience is all about bouncing back and recovery, it plays a major role in your ability to bounce back from stress, from working out, having a long day, attempting to reach a goal, you name it. How can we use music effectively in our ability to bounce back?
There are three ways we can reach for music and engage with it. The first one I recommend for people is to make it. We live in a culture of music listeners. We’re all trained to listen to music and we derive great satisfaction from music listening. I’m talking to the audience right now. If you’re somebody who struggles with worry or anxiety, what that is, is it’s a future-based concern. If you’re somebody who struggles with depression, what you typically are doing is you’re ruminating over stuff that’s happened in the past. That’s where guilt, resentment and regret all fester over things that have already happened in the past. The human mind likes to pop back and forth between the past and the future.
Our body is only in one place, it’s in the present moment. The game becomes if you want to be empowered, be in the present moment because it’s the only place you have any control. If you have no control over the future and the past. The mind doesn’t like being in situations where it doesn’t feel it has any control. That’s stressful to the brain, it causes a stress response. We want our focus to be on the present moment because our brain knows that we can control several things in the present moment. I can control my focus, how I direct my face or my eyes and what I put in my mouth. Physical movement and physical focus are done only in the present.
When I say make music, I mean tap, snap, clap, hum, rap, sing, strum, even sing along in your mind, it’s called audiate. When you engage with the music you’re listening to, music is time-based so it’s happening in the present. When you listened to it, your mind can go all over the place. How many times have you listened to a song when it comes on the radio and it takes you back to some either great or crummy memory and you don’t have any choice? When you engage your body with the music, it poles your focus into the present moment where change occurs. Make it. That means to engage with the music you already enjoy. I certainly recommend it for anyone who’s ever wanted to play a musical instrument, pick up a ukulele, a keyboard, a hand drum, as opposed to a drum set or a Native American flute versus the Western European classical flute. Those instruments are comparatively very easy to be able to make pleasant sounding sounds on and engage with music that you’re either thinking of in your head or you’re listening to on a recording.
If you’ve ever played a musical instrument and you put it down because you got busy with life, your career and kids because a lot of adults played in childhood and then put their instrument down, dust it off. Get it back out and whatever you do, don’t try to play whatever your best was back in the day because you don’t have the chops and that’s okay. We don’t need to perform music to enjoy music. Get your instrument back out ten minutes a day. You’ve got ten minutes, you mess around on social media for way more than ten minutes a day, everybody included. Grab your instrument and pick a time in the day where you can get your fingers on your instrument for ten minutes. It is completely restorative.
I oftentimes will have people be like, “I am not making any music. You don’t want me to make music. My kids, my parents, nobody wants me to make music.” I’m like, “I hear you.” With the playlist, you were spot on. The key is when you create your playlist, you can create different types of playlists. Make for yourself one of your playlists, call it your power playlist. This is your rocky soundtrack. These are three songs that are the most inspiring, they fire you up like nothing and when you feel stress strike in the day, get off the big screen that you’re looking at. Put in your earbuds, get up and go move to the playlist. Move your body along with the playlist for 9 or 10 minutes because that’s all the playlist is, it’s only three songs. This one’s specific. It’s like taking a pill. By the time the playlist is over, your nervous system is reset and you’re like, “Whatever it is, I got this. I’ve worked out whatever that crap was in my head ten minutes ago. It’s gone. Those three songs, blow it to smithereens. Let’s do this. Whatever the thing is.”As strong as you are, you got there because of adversity. All your strength and skills were honed in the fire of adversity. Click To Tweet
The power playlist, you got to have that in your arsenal. The last thing is that sometimes the stress is in the present moment we’re dealing with something in real-time. That’s a problem and it’s stressing us out. What do we do? Mentally, we want to escape. We all do it. “Calgon, take me away.” That was the commercial way back in the day. That’s why our phones and the Netflix button are seductive because, with a few swipes of our thumb, we can escape. These devices are designed to capture and keep our attention forever, longer periods of time because we’re the product.
Smart people are learning how to hijack your attention with these devices when all you wanted to do was escape from the stress that you were dealing with. Anyone who’s reading has had this happen where suddenly you look up and time disappeared and you went.” What the hell happened? Where did I go?” The Netflix button with the auto start the next episode and skip intro feature, that’s smart. You got to go to the bathroom, you need to go to bed, you need to do something besides watch that next episode but they left it on a climax, “I got to see how it resolves.” Suddenly, you’re back it. We’ve all been there. When we want to escape, there are over 2,500 meditation and relaxation apps out there right now. That’s a lot. Whatever your style is, it’s out there. If you think meditation or relaxation is not your thing, your thing is out there, I promise you.
What you want to do is you want to take a piece of music. This is the gift I’m going to give your readers. I created this thing called the Relaxation Vacation. It was a way for me to help those cancer patients get out of the hospital without leaving the hospital. Sometimes, you want your mind to escape a situation but you can’t physically go anywhere. Using slow tempo classical guitar which slows down your nervous system. Pro-tip, if you’re feeling anxious, you want to calm your nervous system down and you want to slow down, don’t do the spa music that doesn’t have a beat. Your nervous system needs a perceptible beat that’s between 60 and 70 beats per minute to slow down to.
There are apps that do that, the Relaxation Vacation I’m going to give you does that but don’t go for the spa music if you’re feeling anxious, you can’t ground to that. The Relaxation Vacation takes you out of the stress of the present moment, slows down your nervous system and takes you back in time to a memory that you choose where at that moment, you felt happy, healthy, safe, connected and powerful. I reconnect you with all those feelings and then you bring them back to the present moment so that you can take on the present moment at your best. The easiest way to go get that is at TimRinggold.com. You’ll see my big bald head right on the front and it will say, “Would you like to take a relaxation vacation?” You’ll say, “Yes, I would because I haven’t been able to take any other vacation for the last year.” You’ll put in your name and your email address, you’ll check your spam folder and you’ll get a link to that and that’s my gift to your readers. It’s a great tool, I’ve used it with thousands of patients over many years in intense settings. It is field-tested.
Thank you for the gift.
It’s my pleasure. I love giving that thing away. PS reader, if you use it, reach out to me and tell me how you use it because my favorite thing back in the day when I was a recording artist, I wanted to get people up on their feet. These days, I want to put people to sleep. When someone tells me, “I fell asleep to that music,” I’m so complimented by that. I’m like, “That’s great. That means your mind was relaxed enough that your body took over to fall asleep.” If you have trouble sleeping, there’s an instrumental version of this that you’re going to get access to as well as one of the bonuses for free. It’s good music to fall asleep to. It slows down your nervous system, gives your brain just enough information to chew on so you’re not chewing on your own thoughts and then you’re out.
Outside of the gift, is there any other way people can connect with you if they’re wanting to learn more about it?
My website’s a great place to go, TimRinggold.com. I’m on Instagram and Facebook, Tim Ringgold. One of the things I do is I have my own podcast called the Reduce Your Stress podcast, it’s Reduce Your Stress with Tim Ringgold and I write and record instrumental guitar music using a loop pedal. I record these chill and sometimes a little bit upbeat inspirational tracks that are only 7 to 10 minutes long and they’re perfect for your commute. I designed the podcast for healthcare workers and professionals who are commuting into a stressful environment so that they listen to the podcast on the way in and they show up powerful for those they’re going to serve.
They can listen to music on the way home to complete the day so that when they get home, they can be peaceful and present to those that they love and not still mentally on the clock. You can check out the Reduce Your Stress podcast. We do a summit each summer and each winter, we have a summit coming up Reduce Your Stress Summit. My goal is to help my fellow humans reduce their stress because we are all being boiled slowly in this crazy culture that we live in. Whatever I can do to help, I’m on it.
I appreciate that. As we wrap up the show, I want to ask you a question that we ask everyone that comes on the show. How can we continuously bounce back from adversity, dominate our challenges and win in the game of life from your perspective?
The thing that I want to tell everybody is as strong as you are, you got there because of adversity. All your strength and skills were all honed in the fire of adversity. Lean in when adversity shows up because it’s your coach and cheerleader. It’s giving you all the muscles whether they’re mental, physical, spiritual or emotional. It’s a gift of strength if you lean in. It’s like, “Thank you, adversity. This is awesome. I’m about to level up.” That’s been my lived experience. Much of the game is how you think about it. The difference I started talking to you about healthy stress and unhealthy stress is how we think about it, that’s it. If you see it as a challenge, you get stronger. If you see it as a curse, you get weaker so lean in.
Tim Ringgold on the show. Thank you so much for stopping by and enlightening us with your knowledge and expertise in music therapy. This has been a very inspirational as well as enlightening show. The next time I reached for my phone to turn on my playlist for whatever reason, I’m going to remember this. I’ll be more self-aware about what’s happening and confidently create more playlists from here on now. Thanks to you. I appreciate you.
This has been a pleasure. Thanks so much for letting me come to share.
- Stress Elimination Summit
- Tim Ringgold
- Instagram – Tim Ringgold
- Facebook – Tim Ringgold
- Reduce Your Stress with Tim Ringgold
- https://www.YouTube.com/watch?v=z_H3MVZPtAA – When Meds Fail: A Case for Music Therapy: Tim Ringgold at TEDxYouth@BommerCanyon
About Tim Ringgold
Tim Ringgold is a board-certified music therapist, columnist, author, host of the Reduce Your Stress podcast and the Stress Elimination Summit.
He has provided music therapy to thousands of teens and adults to help them lower anxiety and reduce pain. Tim is also an award-winning international speaker, having shared the stage with some of the top minds on music, the brain, and personal development, including Tony Robbins.
Tim was the first person to give a TEDx talk on music therapy in 2012. Tim is also a former Regional President of the American Music Therapy Association.