It’s the rare individual that doesn’t enjoy some sort of music. It can soothe or excite us; it can bring us back good memories, it can distract us from painful ones. It can make us work harder and run faster and relax more completely. While we casually use music to enhance our day to day existence, scientists approach the matter systematically and numerous studies confirm the beneficial effects of music on multiple disorders, including strokes, autism, depression, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s
As early as 400 BCE, the father of modern medicine, the great Greek physician Hippocrates, prescribed time in therapeutic “music rooms” for patients suffering with psychiatric disorders such as agitation, melancholy or hallucinations. Yet it was not until the early twentieth century that music therapy was officially recognized as a bona fide medical treatment. World Wars I and II unfortunately resulted in vast numbers of physically and mentally-traumatized young people; many volunteers with musical skills worked in European and American hospitals to help these veterans regain their physical and psychological strength. This was a large population of patients with near identical injuries, and outcome studies enabled scientists to conclude that the groups treated in hospitals with these informal “musical therapists” fared significantly better than those in institutions lacking such treatment. Demand grew for skilled specialists and in 1944; Michigan State University became the first school in the U.S. to offer a degree in Musical Therapy. There are now many educational programs including undergraduate, graduate and even PhD studies for skilled musicians who desire training and certification in utilizing their skills for medicinal purposes. The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) is the official overseeing organization.
There are five distinct aspects of musical therapy, and the practitioners typically construct an individualized program for each patient utilizing a combination of entities. Improvising music, listening to music, singing music, moving to music, and discussing music all have been shown to have therapeutic benefit in the appropriate setting. For instance, music therapy is very effective in helping patients with communication disorders to explore and express their emotions. (This group includes people suffering with dementia, autism, or aphasia – the inability to speak caused by a stroke in the speech center of the brain.) In fact, non-speaking patients can even relearn to speak by undergoing music therapy involving systematic transitioning from tapping out rhythms to rhythmic humming to rhythmic singing to rhythmic speech. Music therapy effectively helps these sufferers regain their lost vocal abilities.
Movement disorders can benefit tremendously from music therapy as well. Patients who have Parkinson’s disease (a neuromuscular disorder that can result in profound difficult walking or performing even the simplest tasks), do markedly better in their physical therapy when music therapy is incorporated. Both endurance and coordination are superior in the music therapy recipients. And not only are the physical goals reached more quickly; patients consistently experience less secondary depression. Similarly, patients with physical impairments that are a result of stroke or traumatic brain injury are more successful in relearning lost skills when music therapy is part of their rehabilitation, and they have an improved likelihood of avoiding the sense of hopelessness and despair that frequently accompany these major adverse health events.
Mood disorders, such as depression, panic and anxiety, are also noted to benefit from music therapy. Therapists use tools, such as song writing and song analysis, to explore hidden emotions and buried memories. Patients can also be taught to utilize the power of music to evoke memories and emotions to their benefit by helping them identify music that elicits positive emotions and incorporating it in to their daily life.
Research is ongoing in this innovative field. Neuro-musicologists are studying the part of the brain involved in music processing and musical skills. Musical psychologists work to understand musical behavior and experience. Musical cognitive studies explore the role of music in memory, perception and attention. And psychoacoustic specialists are researching the psychological and physiological responses of living things to music and other sounds. We thus may someday have a deeper understanding of how music is able to enhance the functions of our bodies and minds. We’ll know not just that it makes us feel good, but why.
Listen to Music as Medicine:[audio:http://www.pawlingpublicradio.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Listen-to-Music-as-Medicine.mp3|titles=Listen to Music as Medicine]