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The Healing Power of Music

Sep 17 2020
7 min read
Woman sitting on her couch with headphones on listening to music.

Remember the free concerts performed by musicians during the pandemic?

Do you recall how you felt and responded when watching or listening? Perhaps you cried, laughed, sang along, or danced. Music is an undeniably uniting and uplifting force — also referred to as our universal language. And while you’ve likely experienced a mental boost as you listened to your favorite tunes when running or driving in your car, music is more powerful than we previously realized. Did you know, for instance, that recent studies from The University of Washington, Harvard, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), suggest that music has profound effects on individuals: from helping improve the recovery of motor and cognitive function in stroke patients, reducing symptoms of depression in dementia patients, and even helping patients undergoing surgery to experience less pain and heal faster.

The NIH is now studying how playing and listening to music can open up circuits in the brain that scientists don’t quite understand. For instance, learning to play an instrument sharpens how the brain processes sound and can improve children’s reading, math, and other school skills. Stroke survivors who can’t speak sometimes can sing, and Alzheimer’s patients who can’t speak or move their hands, may light up and begin humming or tapping along to a tune. Music therapy has been shown to help them “retrain brain pathways to communicate.” Similarly, Parkinson’s patients sometimes walk better to the right beat.

The healing power of music is mysterious and of course, therapeutic.

Maybe you’ve been listening to more these days, due to global uncertainty and social isolation? Music retains its beauty, untouched by it all. It has a natural power to keep you calm, in the moment, and joyful. Sing (and play, and dance) on!

Music as a Healer

Consider all the areas of your life that involve music: Maybe you wake up to the sounds of the radio, or listen on your daily walk. Perhaps you clean the house with your headphones on, or play the piano every night. You might prefer a specific genre or tempo, or the style of a particular artist. At its most basic level, music can make everything you do more pleasurable. And it goes deeper than that: Music can motivate and inspire, encouraging you to relax, let go, and feel happier.

So, it’s not really surprising that music is used as a therapeutic tool in a range of settings. In fact, it’s the most common form of sound therapy – which includes the use of chants and mantras, vibrations, even running water – to help reduce stress, ease symptoms of depression and anxiety, and support those dealing with serious conditions and diseases. A music therapist engages clients with guided activities that combine creating/composing, listening, moving, and responding to music with the goal of helping them make positive changes to improve their overall well-being. There are techniques you can use on your own as well.

Some music can have a relaxing effect, slowing your heart rate and coaxing the rest of your body to respond similarly. A music therapist might sing soothing songs to help comfort someone who’s afraid or stressed — much as your parents might have done for you when you were a baby. A tune with a steady beat might encourage calm, rhythmic breathing in somebody struggling with anxiety. A therapist might help someone play an instrument to direct attention away from pain; hearing the music and interacting with the instrument itself may both divert the mind and help release muscle tension, for example.

Regardless of the music or instruments used, the brain normally has a distinctive response. Unlike interpreting language, which only engages certain neural pathways, processing all of the elements of music — rhythm, tone, melody — requires you to use your whole brain, which builds stronger and healthier neural connections throughout.

The most evident benefit of this is how it can affect mood. Music can open you up and take you to different places, and you can use that awareness to feel more in control of your emotional state, experts say. Your mood can shift as you find a connection to what you’re hearing — something beyond yourself.

Listen & Be

You can use music as an “in the moment” tool to take care of yourself, particularly at times that are challenging. For example, if you are feeling low on energy, upbeat music can help you pick up the pace with an invitation that is welcoming and within reach. There’s no work required. Simply listen and be.

People who struggle to express themselves with words, as well as those with developmental disabilities, brain injuries, and autism, might further benefit from music therapy because of its potential to engage the whole brain in such a way that it improves verbal, social, emotional, and even motor functioning. Music also activates your limbic system, a set of structures in the brain that houses emotions and memory formation. For this reason, in particular, music therapy can be helpful for those with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Listening to familiar songs, especially from early adult years, can bring back memories that might otherwise seem locked away for good.

Additionally, music is often used with cancer patients in an effort to reduce pain and nausea and manage emotional hurdles. Because engaging with music is such a familiar and often sensory experience, it can promote feelings of comfort and safety while coping with a difficult treatments and situations. Anyone, in fact, may benefit at times from a group setting or a one-on-one session with a music therapist; no talent or experience required.

And, of course, enjoying music on your own — whether that means playing an instrument, listening, or dancing to music — is its own reward. It delights the spirit, brings people together and can contribute to joy, healing, and greater well-being. Just think of a favorite song to feel its power.