It’s difficult to imagine a happier instrument than the ukulele. Light, twinkling musicality aside, the mere appearance of the small stringed-instrument, miniature and cute, invokes a feeling of joy. Just do a quick search for ukulele covers of your favorite songs, and try not to smile.
The ukulele conjures up images of the shores of Hawaii, where island breezes carry the scent of floral hibiscus and the crashing of waves can always be heard somewhere in the distance. When considering its origin, one might imagine an islander suddenly stumbling upon the instrument leaning against a palm tree, forever changing the musical world.
But the history (1) of the ukulele has a much more intriguing past, stemming from Portuguese immigration to the set of islands in the mid 1800’s. As early as 1879, shiploads of immigrants from the islands of Madeira and the Azores arrived in Hawaii as farmhands to work in sugar cane fields. Of the many items they brought with them, the machete de braga, a four stringed instrument, was arguably the most entertaining.
At the end of a long day in the fields, families would sit around campfires singing traditional folksongs before resting up for the next grueling day of work. The music was probably first heard by the indigenous population when the Portuguese community gathered at the docks of Honolulu to welcome new immigrants to island.
The popularity of the stringed instrument spiked, soon becoming the star of street-corner concerts that the newcomers and established population could enjoy together. Fascinated by the energetic strumming of the machete players, island natives renamed the instrument ukulele, Hawaiian for jumping flea.
Even local royalty adopted the new toy. King David Kalakaua, an accomplished musician, brought the ukulele to a wider audience by naming it Hawaii’s national instrument. Subsequently, some minor changes were made to the ukulele, utilizing koa wood and altering the tuning to make the instrument more portable and enjoyable to play.
The next century saw rises and falls in ukulele popularity akin to the very sea from which the instrument originated. There are many detailed histories (2) on the subject, starring iconic American legends like Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby.
Today, the uke is experiencing yet another revival, with vloggers posting covers of the latest popular songs, and well-known bands playing their own songs with the happy little instrument.
Which is good news for those who have been voicing the benefits of learning the ukulele for years. That’s right. The ukulele is entertaining and good for you. Here’s why.
Neuropsychologist Daniel Levitin, a professor of music at McGill University in Montreal, provides some uplifting news on the efficacy of music intervention and clinical music therapy. According to him, scientific studies have found that particular types of music, be they upbeat or downtrodden, influence hormones in the brain, creating increases or dips in blood pressure.
The key is, he says, for the individual to find music that most influences him. A doctor cannot prescribe classical music and assume that it will affect every patient the same way. Music is subjective, in other words.
The interesting thing about the development of music intervention in today’s society, says Levitin, is that people are already using music as treatment method without really thinking of it as medicine. Companies like Spotify and Apple Music, for instance, have capitalized on this practice by arranging playlists based on moods, location, and activities. It seems that we as a society have already figured out what psychiatrists are testing, namely that music influences our emotions.
The field of psychology is taking it one step further by asking whether music therapy can be used to treat more serious cases of psychiatric disorders. Harvard Review of Psychiatry (3), for example, published a study in 2011 exploring the effects of music on patients with various mental illnesses, including depression, schizophrenia, and anxiety, among others. They found that in some cases, music could actually be used as an alternative to traditional treatment regiments.
Of course, the results need to be tested further, but this is incredibly exciting step for those looking for alternatives to invasive types of therapy, like medication or electroconclusive therapy (ECT).
Overall, listening to music is a great way to boost mental health and help deal with certain psychiatric illnesses. So if the ukulele is the instrument that gets you smiling, you can make a conscious choice to improve your wellbeing by incorporating ukulele tracks into your daily routine.
But wait, there’s more! Research shows that while listening to music has a great influence on wellbeing, playing music has an even stronger impact on mental health. Some benefits, according to Levitin, are cognitive improvements as a result of attentional training. He goes on to point out that children who are exposed to music classes are more likely to be well-socialized later in life.
In support of Levitin’s claim, a study (4) out of Canada suggests that children’s participation in music lessons leads to an increase in social cohesion as a result of sympathy and prosocial development. There are various theories as to why learning to play music may contribute to changes in these behaviors. One idea is that the ability of music to bring humans together may have played a role in the survival of our ancestors.
In related studies, music lessons have been associated with cognitive functioning improvements in language skills, visuospatial abilities and memory. Such findings even linked music classes to higher intelligence and academic success.
Clearly, listening to and playing music is beneficial to our mental health as well as our social interconnectedness. And what better way achieve both than to add a little ukulele to your life?
Those who have tried out ukulele classes rave about the joy of learning to play the instrument. Luckily, because of a recent increase in ukulele workshops and classes in and around Sydney, it is a great time to take up the hobby. For a traditional class, try signing up for the ukulele course in Chatswood with Ian Porter.