Music has many benefits, to those producing the sounds as well as those listening. We explore the reach and efficacy of music therapy and its intrinsic benefits.
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Music has been a part of human history for millennia. According to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, humans have been creating musical instruments for nearly 40,000 years. Some of the oldest found objects are flutes made from bones of Mammoth ivory, while the earliest evidence of musical notation dates back to a 4,000-year-old tablet of Sumerian clay that contains instructions and tuning for a hymn honoring a ruler of the time.
Older still is proof of a song composed to a goddess in cuneiform which dates back to the 14th century BC. Regardless of where you look or listen, human history has usually been accompanied by the presence of music.
When we dig deeper, the fact that music has maintained such a familiar and consistent place throughout the millennia begins to provoke the question of “Why?” Besides the pleasant melodies, are there other elements in music that imbue themselves and foster our universal appetite?
The role of music therapy
Since its inception in 1945, after World War II, in which the techniques were first used by the United States Department of War to help military servicemen who were recovering from injuries, music therapy has held a place in modern scholarship and practice. Music therapy is an evidence-based style of therapy utilizing music in clinical approaches with the express goal of bringing health to a patient.
Some of these goals include reducing stress, improving mood, and encouraging self-expression, though music therapy can also be applied to the treatment of more severe medical conditions like depression, autism, substance abuse, Alzheimer’s disease, and even cardiac conditions.
This therapy involves the interaction with music through listening, singing, playing various instruments, and even the composition of music. Musical skill, talent, or previous experience is not required: anyone can participate and enjoy its benefits.
Categories of music therapies
Musical therapies can be classified into two categories: structured and unstructured. Structured therapy involves previously structured forms of music (written or recorded) selected for use before a session, while the flexible, unstructured forms refer more to techniques that are improvisational and connected with the conversation that takes place between client and therapist during a session.
The various schools of psychology (behaviorism, psychoanalysis, humanism, etc.) have each contributed to the various approaches to music therapy. In a broad sense, there are two basic types: active and receptive. During the active form of therapy, a client makes music alone or within a group. In the receptive form, a client spends most of the time listening to music.
Typically used in concert with traditional therapies, these techniques can be of great benefit and support with other healing modalities. The uses and benefits of music therapy have been researched and implemented for decades, providing positive effects for people with various diseases and disorders.
Benefits of musical experience in mental health
There are myriad benefits associated with music therapy that are both physically and emotionally helpful. Physically, music can affect the body by altering heart rate, lowering blood pressure, or stimulating conscious or unconscious body movements that help with physical therapy and reduce asthma episodes. Emotionally, music can help lessen feelings of isolation, improve mood, and encourage healthy self-expression.
In complex developmental and behavioral cases such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), whose central impairment is that of social interaction and speech communication, music therapy helps enable appropriate expressions.
Reduction of stress and anxiety
Stress and anxiety often go hand-in-hand. Stress has huge biological impacts on the body which trigger hormonal responses when the brain is activated in specific ways. When people are highly stressed out, blood pressure goes up and the adrenal glands begin to produce the hormone cortisol.
Over the short term, cortisol is beneficial in that it can help the mind to focus, but when consistently and excessively present, cortisol can have a detrimental effect on the body. Consistent levels of stress lead to the development of anxiety disorders.
Music can lower heart rates and cortisol levels, release endorphins, distract from stressors, and thus reduce the related symptoms. Music therapy has been shown to help decrease signs of stress, anxiety, and depression.
Music therapy with cancer patients
A cancer diagnosis and its ensuing treatments are not just physically painful, they can be emotionally draining. People with cancer can benefit from more than just the technical, pharmacological, and surgery-based interventions in their efforts to fight off the disease and its symptoms.
Music therapy has proven to be efficacious in its ability to reduce anxiety in those who are starting radiation treatments and can also help with side effects due to chemotherapy. The many emotional benefits found in patients who chose to participate in music therapy showed up in persons at every stage of cancer treatment: before, during, and after.
Emotional elements of pain management
Physical pain is never without its emotional counterpart. Pain elicits any combination of emotional reactions that can be hard to manage, especially when that pain is chronic or closely related to a chronic condition. Frustration, anger, worry, confusion, and feelings of hopelessness are just a few examples of what might be felt while dealing with physical ailments. Playing and listening to music, songwriting, and singing have been shown to reduce pain levels in patients.
This reduction of pain coincides with a lessening of stress and anxiety connected to the pain. Those reductions, in turn, help with positive physiological changes such as improved respiration, lower blood pressure, reduced heart rate, and the relaxing of muscle tension.
Through guided techniques that pair visual imagery and calming music, relaxation responses can be cued in the body. The redirection of attention away from the pain leads to feelings of comfort, and these conditioned responses help signal shifts in mood.
Reduction of symptoms related to depression
The use of music as a form of structured intervention in treating depression has been reported to be beneficial in relieving symptoms. Music therapy helps individuals express emotions that, in combination with other techniques, aid in the reduction of symptoms associated with depression while encouraging and enhancing social relationships. This has the added effect of staving off those depressive symptoms.
A great example of this was a study done on mothers who were suffering from postpartum depression. The study involved mothers who showed signs of moderate to severe symptoms of depression who participated in 10 weeks of music and singing classes with their new babies. The results demonstrated a significantly faster rate of recovery than in mothers who only took part in traditional care groups.
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Music is a vital element of the human cultural experience, no matter the country or time period. The adoption of music as a form of therapy, used in combination with other healing modalities, has proven to be a beneficial practice in response to a number of emotional and physical ailments, and even those with neurological development disabilities like autism.
Considering the growing collection of evidence that demonstrates benefits associated with music therapy, as well as the ability for its employment at medical facilities, you can expect more attention and integration of music therapy in our modern healthcare systems.
Abby Thompson is a young adult education consultant with a keen interest in promoting mental health awareness through music education. Over the past six years, she has dedicated her efforts to teaching young people about the transformative power of music and its role in promoting mental wellness. In addition to her love of music, Abby is also an advocate for S.T.E.A.M. education and recognizes the important role technology plays in shaping the future of our world.
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