The Healing Power of Music

Source: PBS; American Music Therapy Association; Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain; various academic studies (see citations below)

Though it’s been around for more than 100 years, music therapy as a distinct discipline has recently been cast in the spotlight for the role it played last year in Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ brain injury recovery (which was highlighted in a 2012 PBS segment entitled “The Healing Power of Music” that featured music therapists from the University of California San Francisco treating patients at the university’s Benioff Children's Hospital.) This topic was also brought to life in Oliver Sacks’ recent national bestseller Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, which explores the power of music in the lives of patients, musicians and everyday people who are struggling to adapt to various neurological conditions. 

As the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) explains, music as a healing influence is as old as the writings of Plato and Aristotle, but the profession formally began when musicians worked with Veterans suffering emotional and physical trauma after their service in the world wars. We all know how soothing, stimulating, enlivening, and “therapeutic” music can be. It is pervasive in our world and all cultures have it at the center of ritual and celebration. Music therapy, however, is not simply about listening to music to feel better; the AMTA defines it as the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed a music therapy program, which points to the importance of context and relationship as key to the therapeutic process in which music is used.

Despite its ancient origins, research on the neurological effects of music therapy is a relatively new area because, until recently, researchers have not had adequate tools to study it from a neuro-scientific perspective. General brain science suggests that learning something new creates new connections in the brain and music therapy is one way to create these connections. Brain trauma, however, is just one condition music therapy is used to treat, with treatment ranging from physical to emotional to social. It is also used in hospices, in transitional dying processes, and in the context of what is called “Expressive Arts Therapy” (which goes beyond the use of only one modality like music) and integrates other arts (or expressive forms and activities) like movement, drawing, painting, and drama.

As University of the Pacific in Stockton (California) professor of music therapy Eric Waldon explains in the PBS segment, music, which he likens to a cerebral bypass around damaged areas of the brain, provides a pathway that allows patients to regain mobility and speech. Some of the most recent studies suggest that music therapy intervention improves social competence in children and adolescents with social deficits (Gooding, 2011), enhances intergenerational interactions (Belgrave, 2011), aids the treatment of bereaved youth (McFarren, 2011), increases coping ability of patients with personality disorders (Odell-Miller, 2011), reduces the perception of pain (Finnerty, 2011), improves physical rehabilitation (Weller & Baker, 2011), reduces agitation in Alzheimer’s patients (Zare, Ebrahimi & Birashk, 2010), affects the treatment of autism in children (Reschke-Hernández, 2011), increases relaxation and steadies physiological responses among intensive care patients (Chan, Chunt, Chung & Lee, 2009), and relieves depression (Erkkila, Gold, Fachner, Ala-Rouna, Punkanen & Vanhala, 2008), among others benefits.

Despite the emerging field of research on music therapy, however, it’s not easy to quantify the results of music therapy, partially due to the difficulty of finding a homogenous enough group through which researchers can measure the effects of music therapy intervention. The discoveries researchers and therapists have made, however, motivate scientists to further explore how music affects the brain and its therapeutic potential.

Works cited
Belgrave, M. (2011). The effect of a music therapy intergenerational program on children and older adults' intergenerational interactions, cross-age attitudes, and older adults' psychosocial well-being. Journal of Music Therapy, 48(4), 487-508.
Erkkilä, J., Gold, C., Fachner, J., Ala-Ruona, E., Punkanen, M., & Vanhala, M. (2008). The effect of improvisational music therapy on the treatment of depression: protocol for a randomised controlled trial. BMC Psychiatry, 81-9.
Finnerty, R. (2011). Music therapy: a viable intervention for pain control. Canadian Nursing Home, 22(1), 5.
Gooding, L. (2011). The effect of a music therapy social skills training program on improving social competence in children and adolescents with social skills deficits. Journal of Music Therapy, 48(4), 440-462.
Chan, M., Chung, Y., Chung, S., & Lee, O. (2009). Investigating the physiological responses of patients listening to music in the intensive care unit. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 18(9), 1250-1257. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2702.2008.02491.
McFerran, K. (2011). Music therapy with bereaved youth: Expressing grief and feeling better. Prevention Researcher, 18(3), 17-20.
Odell-Miller, H. (2011). Value of music therapy for people with personality disorders. (Cover story). Mental Health Practice, 14(10), 34-35.
Reschke-Hernández, A. E. (2011). History of music therapy treatment interventions for children with autism. Journal of Music Therapy, 48(2), 169-207.
Weller, C., & Baker, F. (2011). The role of music therapy in physical rehabilitation: a systematic literature review. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 20(1), 43-61.
Zare, M., Ebrahimi, A., & Birashk, B. (2010). The effects of music therapy on reducing agitation in patients with Alzheimer's disease, a pre-post study. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 25(12), 1309-1310.