Is Music the New Medicine? Exploring the Benefits of Music Therapy

Written By: Noe Villavicencio-Ramirez

Mentored By: Suzanna Donato, M.A.

If you were asked to make a playlist of your life, what would it consist of? Would it contain songs from your childhood or beats from your teens? How about tracks that bring you to tears or melodies that brighten your day? We cannot deny the influence that music has on our lives, but have you ever wondered why that is?

The origins of music date back to way before anything you or I could remember. Recently, archeologists in Germany discovered a flute, carved from the bone of a bird, estimated to be about 42,000 years old. It is considered to be the oldest evidence of music-making to date. Another excavation in modern-day Syria unveiled many cuneiform scripts (i.e., clay tablets that detailed the daily life of Mesopotamian civilizations) from 1750 BCE. Within these scripts were depictions of musicians as important parts of daily life. Performing at religious ceremonies, communal festivities, and during celebrations for the King returning from battle, the musicians were a cornerstone of the lively cities and remained a staple of society for centuries. In addition to its celebratory contributions, the therapeutic value of music was also explored as far back as Ancient Greece. Aristotle, in his famous “De Anima”, wrote about the emotional impact and soul purification that was believed to take place as a result of simply listening to the sounds of a flute.

Music has a presence and the unique ability to demand excitement as it gets a crowd moving, but we cannot overlook the status music holds in its ability to remedy a hurting soul.

In today’s modern practices, music is continuously explored for its benefits and remedial contributions. It has been an intervention in a vast array of different procedures and settings becauses of its often soothing nature, along with the positive emotions it can elicit in the listener.

When a child undergoes a clinical procedure, naturally they are hit with a sea of emotions; fear and anxiety being the most noteworthy. In order to mitigate the stress that is brought upon by different procedures, oftentimes pharmacotherapy is the chosen remedy. Unfortunately, as effective as these medications may be, they are each also associated with long-term risks of their own (e.g. dry mouth, gastrointestinal discomfort, or more severe issues). That’s where music comes in. According to Klassen (2008), music has the potential to replace these interventions, thus reducing the risk for lasting negative effects. By pulling one’s attention away from painful symptoms, music offers an outlet to escape and get lost in a world of one’s choosing. To test this hypothesis, Klassen et. al (2008) decided to implement Music Therapy into the preparation phase of children undergoing medical or dental procedures. The children were observed either undergoing Music Therapy with a music therapist present (i.e., the active music therapy condition), without a therapist (i.e., the passive music therapy condition), or without any music at all (i.e., no music therapy condition). The results showed that, regardless of whether the therapy was active or passive, music was successful in reducing the levels of pain and anxiety as compared with the no music therapy condition. In this context, music was able to sooth the worrisome children and ease their transition into the operation phase, which is quite a feat for a tool we can so easily take for granted.

In addition to the impact that music has on pain and anxiety, it has also been suggested that music can influence one’s mood and emotions. A number of different experiments where music was used to induce mood changes in various samples were reviewed to further explore this idea. Across the varying studies, music remained consistent in its ability to influence the mood of the listener, either inciting a more positive or a more negative mood. In addition, researchers realized the role of cognitive processes that seemed to be paired to the induction of emotions via music. Participants that underwent changes in mood attributed these changes to the memories they recalled while listening to particular songs. Whether it was picturing their parents, remembering a special night out with their significant other, or reliving their state championship game from their high school days, the participants that interacted with the music felt a certain connection between the music and their memory recall. When reminded of their valued past experiences, participants were able to reconnect with their emotional state of that particular time period. This connection was reflected by the changes in mood and emotion of their present self. These studies suggest that music has the ability to trigger emotions that go beyond the ordinary “day-to-day” emotions and deal more with emotions that aren’t as easily labelled verbally. With this in mind, further research is currently exploring how to distinguish between the degree of complexity regarding the emotional responses as well as determining whether responses are a result of induction (how the music makes you feel) or perception (how the music sounds) (e.g., “I am feeling happy” versus “The music sounds happy”).

Another promising avenue for musical intervention is its role in regulating hormonal responses that can facilitate changes in different physiological functions. An example of this is demonstrated in Sutoo’s (2004) article on the effects of music on blood pressure regulation. This study used classical music to identify responses in the hormone levels of hypertensive rats in order to track the effect on their systolic blood pressure. The levels of calcium release and dopamine production were measured in order to study their association, as well as dopamine’s role in reducing blood pressure. Sutoo’s experiment used the work of a famous composer that you most likely have heard of, Wolfgang Mozart. Through the musical innervation, the researchers discovered that the music induced the synthesis of dopamine via calcium release, an effect that was halted when this pathway was manually blocked. As a result of the increased dopamine, the rats displayed a decrease in blood pressure and experienced a more efficient cardiac output. Wow, when people say that music could touch their heart, they aren’t kidding! Further research is being conducted on these mechanisms in order to test other regulatory functions attributed to the dopamine release, which may help in counteracting symptoms of other diseases that follow similar patterns of dopamine transmission.

Though we have undoubtedly made great strides in our exploration of music as a viable intervention, further research is necessary to better understand the mechanisms behind the power that music holds. Currently, researchers are expanding on studies that have shown great promise by fine tuning previous methods and approaches, such as those that we’ve looked into. One of the most critical additions to previous research is ensuring a thorough double blind approach. With frontline faculty usually taking the lead on data collection and even analysis of patients participating in the study, some of the results may be interpreted in a certain way given the assessors knowledge of the setting and experimental conditions. In future procedures, we hope to fully blind the assessors who will analyze the collected data, ensure full discretion of participant allocation, and implement controls that mirror the condition of the experimental groups (i.e., the active or passive music therapy conditions) through headsets that receive no input or by playing pre-recorded sounds/stories in place of music.

Most of the time, we don’t think twice about the extent to which music is influencing our daily lives so hearing about all of these different discoveries and experiments can be a lot to take in. If that’s the case, maybe try listening to some music on your own to help you relax a bit and hopefully you too will add to the list of great songs you associate with even greater memories!