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Music Has Charms: the healing power of music therapy

Jan 19, 2015 11:48AM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Kathleen Jepsen

Tiny, fragile infants, many weeks premature, sleep peacefully in New York’s Beth Israel Medical Center neonatal unit, cocooned in the soothing sounds of music therapy. As part of a research study, loud machinery, ventilator alarms, and visitor chatter have been replaced with rhythmic drum boxes, ocean discs (cylinders containing metal beads), and parent-sung lullabies. Researchers in the 2013 study, conducted in 11 hospitals, reported that “live music, played or sung, helped to slow infants’ heartbeats, calm their breathing, improve sucking behaviors important for feeding, aid sleep, and promote states of quiet alertness.”

Music as healer is an ancient idea. The Greeks had one god, Apollo, for both music and medicine. The so-called Father of Medicine, Hippocrates, is said to have played music for his patients. Seventeenth-century playwright William Congreve wrote, “Music has charms to sooth a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” Our modern concept of music as therapy can be traced to strategies used to aid soldiers who suffered physical or emotional trauma after the World Wars. At that time, community musicians traveled to hospitals and played for veterans, who experienced healing benefits.

The reach of music therapy is long. Researchers have found that listening to music can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, increase antibody production, and boost immunity to bacteria and viruses. It can ease pain, decrease depression, and relieve insomnia. According to the American Society of Hypertension, listening to soothing music for just 30 minutes a day can significantly reduce high blood pressure. Schools in Maryland and across the country routinely employ music therapists to aid students with intellectual or cognitive disorders. Music-based therapy in children and adults with autism-spectrum disorders has produced impressive results. According to the Autism Science Foundation (ASF), “Individuals with autism respond positively to music when little else is able to get their attention, which makes music a potential therapeutic tool.”

The full power of music first became clear with the use of brain imaging, which showed that music is processed in many areas of the brain--areas that control movement, memory, analysis, emotion, and satisfaction. The brain’s processing of music allows communication between the left and right hemispheres. Experts believe that, as we listen to music, our brains respond by creating new connections, often around damaged areas. This fact makes music a viable rehabilitative strategy in recovery from stroke or injury. The National Institutes for Health (NIH) cites Melodic Intonation Therapy (MIT), which uses melody and rhythm, as a catalyst to “improve expressive language by capitalizing on preserved function (singing) and engaging language-capable regions.” Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ recovery from her traumatic brain injury was aided by this technique. With MIT, she managed to sing what she could not say, facilitating her eventual speech recovery.

Music has even further applications for Parkinson’s disease sufferers. The American Parkinson’s Disease Association (APDA) says, “Music can affect function in profound ways.” Certain types of music stimulate production of dopamine and serotonin that is diminished in PD patients, and slow, rhythmic music can even reduce the tremors and involuntary movements associated with the disease. A recent study at the University of Toronto used vibroacoustic therapy (rhythmic vibration in the form of low frequency sound) and reported marked improvement in patients with PD, including “less rigidity, better walking speed, and less tremor.”

Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music, has studied the effect of music on the areas of the brain that store memory. “People with Alzheimer’s disease,” he observes, “can often sing songs they heard during their teens, even when they can no longer remember the names of their children.” He believes that music from our youth can stimulate “the memories of these emotionally charged years of self-discovery,” and he has seen Alzheimer’s cruel damage temporarily rolled back. For patients, music offers a portal to lost identity. Oliver Sachs, Professor of Clinical Neurology and Psychology at Columbia University, acknowledges the role of the therapy. “Music is no luxury to them but a necessity, and can have power to restore them to themselves and to others at least for a while.”

The charm of music would seem to have cradle-to-grave potential. Experts believe that music is the first outside sensation that registers with a developing fetus and the last that registers as life passes away. Music therapy has become standard procedure in hospice and palliative care strategies, providing pain relief and solace at the end of life. Patients sing, choose songs, or simply listen, reviewing their lives through music. A study by Concordia University found that “patients were so comforted by the experience that their families requested music therapy teams return to play soft music as the patient died.”

The healing reach of music is long and profound.

What’s Up? does not give medical advice. This material is simply a discussion of current information, trends, and topics. Please seek the advice of a physician before making any changes to your lifestyle or routine.