Music Therapy

First published on Stillpoint Spaces

Music is pretty powerful. It’s the undeniable euphoria and buzz that comes from hearing a song you love, the effect akin to walking on sunshine whilst watching lambs frolic king gleefully after you’ve just necked your morning triple shot coffee. It’s the ability of a song to transport you to a place, time and feeling that you thought was long lost in the midst of time. It’s the potential to totally change your mood from Jekyll like to that of Hyde. But it is not just in everyday life that music has some ‘magic’ qualities.

There’s no denying that music has a profound impact on mental and physical wellbeing as well. A study by Nature Neuroscience in 2011 found that listening to music produces dopamine, the chemical released at moments of enjoyment, just like other stimuli such as food, sex and exercise, making it an enriching part of a healthy life. Research has shown that those levels of dopamine are nine percent higher when the listener actually enjoys the music, so the music itself doesn’t have to be of a certain clever kind to benefit you.

And so, music can be used as a treatment to make people happier, healthier, and recover from illness. Far from new age nonsense, this is tried and tested science. Music therapy, that is the use of music to treat patients with mental and physical ailments, has earned its place in the medical world and is a core option available on the NHS. There are also voluntary and charity groups such as Core Arts, Creative Routes and Music in Hospitals all working to deliver the benefits of music therapy to those suffering from a range of conditions, both mental and physical. All aspects of music – playing, listening, singing and writing – are included in music therapy, and sessions aim to reduce tension and anxiety, allow the opportunity for expression and communication, help people engage, and have proven physical benefits.

First developing as a profession in World War I, music as an aspect of healing rituals has existed for centuries, and it was in the 18th century that scientists first began to investigate the impact of music on the respiratory and cardiac systems of the body. Louis Roger’s theoretical work A Treatise on the Effects of Music on the Human Body, published in 1748, discussed how the regularity of the beat helped focus and concentration, and the vibrations had an impact upon blood flow and nerves. Some people even cite its use right back to the Bible, when David played the harp to King Soul to rid him of bad spirits.

Numerous recent studies have also revealed benefits for patients suffering both physical and mental ailments. A 2009 trial of patients with heart disease found that just one thirty minute session of music therapy could significantly improve health, and Mozart’s Sonata K448 has been proven to reduce the frequency and severity of epileptic attacks.

An explanation of how this works can be seen in the process called entrainment, where music is used as a tool in helping sufferers of strokes recover and regain the ability to form thought patterns that will help decrease depression, reduce anxiety and improve the mood. Essentially the parts of the brain controlling particular functions become synchronised with a beat, selected to stimulate a particular and more helpful brain state.

Clearly a powerful stimulant, the relaxing effects of music therapy have been indicated by reductions on blood pressure and pulse rates, an increase in oxygen saturation, and thus ultimately less pain. Aristotle believed that ‘by music a man becomes accustomed to feeling the right emotions,’ and for those having difficulty engaging with the emotions that work for them, music therapy is an excellent way to practice.

The more often people engage with music, the greater the cognitive benefit. Like anything, practice makes perfect, and by stimulating neural pathways in the brain that are not as often used in everyday life, the brain literally gets a whole beneficial workout.

Music is not only an impressive art form, but also a life-changing resource with the ability to improve both a person’s health and wellbeing. In short, music truly does sound good.

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