The power of music has been the subject of several fascinating studies over the past few decades. Researchers are delving into the possibilities of music therapy to treat disorders, stimulate the mind and body, and even help in recuperation after illness. Several research studies have been commissioned by organizations like the National Institutes of Health to look at how music impacts our minds and bodies. What emerges as a pattern is that music does indeed have the power to strike a chord with most of us. If some studies are to be believed, it could heal your body as well.
What Music Does To Your Mind And Body?
When music travels to your ear, it is converted to electrical signals that move via the auditory nerve to the brain. Here, the auditory cortex, or the part of the brain responsible for processing sound, takes over and stimulates a range of responses. Music actually activates numerous areas of the brain, including those responsible for memory and even emotion. New research shows it also activates the motor regions that handle physical movements. Music can also be a social experience. Joining others in a shared activity like singing or playing music can help with building relationships.
Music also has the ability to help ease anxiety before potentially stressful activities. The Journal of Advanced Nursing carried a report on the impact of music on day-surgery patients. Some test subjects were made to listen to music in the preoperative waiting area. Afterward, those who had been exposed to the music had much lower anxiety levels than those who did not get to listen to music.
Dr. Gottfried Schlaug of Harvard Medical School keenly observed the brain development of kids (aged 6 upward) from the time they first started learning to play an instrument. After about 15 months of learning music, they developed more complex connections in the brain. Their motor systems and auditory systems were also more evolved and elaborate than those of children who weren’t playing instruments. The longer a child practiced music, the stronger these effects were. Schlaug surmised that the act of creating music was activating multiple zones in the brain (auditory, motor, and visual). He also suggested that this insight could be leveraged for treating neurological disorders.
Music For Treating Illness
Schlaug is not alone in the belief that music can do a lot to benefit a person. Music therapy is now being explored for its many possible valuable influences on the mind and body, including treating some common ailments and helping people cope with disorders.
Music is now being used to help with pain alleviation and relaxation among people suffering from chronic pain. It can also help with pain experienced as a side effect of long-term illness. One study evaluated the effectiveness of music therapy (single session) for patients in a hospice over three months. It was found to be helpful in improving physical comfort, relaxation, and, most importantly, with pain control.
Some studies found that stroke patients who were treated with music therapy showed marked improvements in their motor function. After three weeks of music therapy sessions, their fine motor skills and gross motor skills both got better. Their movements became smoother, and precision and speed also improved.5 Research by Dr. Schlaug looked at the role of music in speech therapy as well. Among patients in whom stroke had damaged the section of the brain responsible for speech, some could still sing out what they wanted to say. Using music intonation therapy, he observed that they could slowly learn to sing simple songs. Over time, other areas of the brain began to handle speech-related functions.
Playing music in the background helps children with special education needs and learning disorders. According to one study, it had a calming effect which enabled the kids to stay focused.
Music can be uplifting. This becomes even more important for someone living with depression. Whether it is playing music, singing, or just listening to music – all have their benefits. One study looked at individual music therapy sessions for working age population,8 another at group improvisational music therapy for adults as well as adolescents who had a history of substance abuse,9 and yet another at the elderly living with Alzheimer’s disease.10 In all three cases, the results showed that music had a positive effect on the test subjects.
Research also shows that people afflicted with heart disease could benefit from music therapy. This helped their blood pressure come down, helped their heart rates settle at normal levels, and curbed their anxiety and stress levels. One study of coronary patients revealed that the use of music could cut stress and result in relaxation even after physical exertion from exercise.
Music can also be used to help ease both the intensity and duration of pain, while also cutting down the anxiety experienced. In some cases, the amount of analgesic medicine required can also be reduced. This was observed in pediatric oncology treatment, where music was also applied to help stimulate children when they were hospitalized for lengths of time. Additionally, it also helped enhance the connect with family as well as the healthcare professionals the child interacted with.12
Music, if harnessed as a therapeutic tool, can do much more than just soothe or energize you. The end game is to find a way to use music more widely, to heal, to cure, and in palliative care.