Why is music powerful medicine?

Today, we have a guest post by an author who is a Canadian health expert, and especially in the field of music therapy.   Please feel free to contact me or him if you have more questions.

Music as medicine

For centuries people have used music to soothe others; this is why mothers sing to their babies.  It has also been used to lift the spirits of those feeling depressed, and to bring confidence to soldiers going into battle.  Yet it is only recently that music has been recognized as a serious tool with which to tackle health problems.  Now, as music therapy takes off in earnest, people are taking a fresh look at all the ways music can help us to feel better.

The physical effects of music

Music affects the body in several direct, verifiable ways.  They include the following:

  • Steadying the heart rate by matching it to the beat.
  • Steadying the breathing.
  • Slowing the production of the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol.
  • Relaxing muscles.
  • Boosting healthy immune responses.

By influencing the body in these ways, music can lower stress levels and reduce the risk of several major health problems occurring, including heart disease and stroke.  What’s more, it can make people feel happier and more relaxed in the process.

The use of music in these areas is growing increasingly common because where a health problem is not so severe that an immediate medical intervention is needed, it can provide a less damaging means of addressing that problem.  Unlike many medications music has no negative side effects.

Music as a distraction

Music is now used in a number of medical contexts to distract people from stress and pain, making it easier for them to cope with difficult situations.  For instance, dentists may use it to help their patients feel calm, and it is piped into MRI machines – at the patient’s request – to drown out unpleasant noises and help them relax while they have to keep still.  It can also be used to make hospital environments less stressful for children.

Music and disability

Some people with mental health problems and learning disorders find music helpful not just because it reduces stress but also because it helps them to order their thoughts.  This is thought to be because of its impact on key neurons in the brainstem.  Essentially, it creates order through rhythm.  Music is now routinely used in social care and learning support for people in these groups.

A related approach to this is the use of music to help reorient people with dementia and to help stroke survivors recover their motor skills.

Music therapy

Music therapy is currently one of the fastest growing allied health professions and is the focus of a great deal of research, including work looking at the direct biological effects of certain sound frequencies.  Scientists also measure the different behaviors of the brain with and without musical stimulation in order to better understand how music can be used to change thought patterns.  In some instances it can help patients to break out of cyclical patterns of depressive thought, and patients can learn to use it themselves to recover from panic attacks.

Further information about music therapy can be found on this health advice site.



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