How many times have you turned to music to cheer you up even more in happy moments, or have you sought the comfort of music when melancholy hits you?
Music affects us all. But only in recent times have scientists sought to explain and quantify how music impacts us on an emotional level. Research into the links between melody and the mind indicates that listening to and playing music can actually alter the way our brains, and therefore our bodies, work.
It seems that the healing power of music, on the body and the spirit, is just beginning to be understood, although music therapy is not new. For many years, therapists have advocated the use of music, both for listening and studying, for anxiety and stress reduction, and pain relief. And music has also been recommended as an aid for positive change in mood and emotional states.
Michael DeBakey, who in 1966 became the first surgeon to successfully implant an artificial heart, is on record as saying, “Creating and performing music promotes self-expression and provides self-gratification while bringing pleasure to others. In medicine, more and more reports published studies show that music has a curative effect on patients.
Doctors now believe that the use of music therapy in hospitals and nursing homes not only makes people feel better, but also makes them heal faster. And across the country, medical experts are beginning to apply new insights about the impact of music on the brain to treat patients.
In one study, researcher Michael Thaut and his team detailed how victims of stroke, cerebral palsy, and Parkinson’s disease who worked with music took larger, more balanced steps than those whose therapy was unaccompanied.
Other researchers have discovered that the sound of the drums can influence the functioning of the bodies. Quoted in a 2001 USA Today article, Suzanne Hasner, chair of the department of music therapy at Berklee College of Music in Boston, says that even those with dementia or head injuries retain musical ability.
The article reported the results of an experiment in which researchers at the Mind-Body Wellness Center in Meadville, Pennsylvania, tracked 111 cancer patients who played drums for 30 minutes a day. They found strengthened immune systems and increased levels of cancer-fighting cells in many of the patients.
“Deep in our long-term memory is this rehearsed music,” says Hasner. “It’s processed in the emotional part of the brain, the amygdala. This is where you remember the music that was played at your wedding, the music of your first love, that first dance. Those things can still be remembered even in people with progressive illnesses. It can be a window, a way to reach them…”
The American Music Therapy Organization states that music therapy can enable “emotional closeness with families and caregivers, relaxation for the whole family, and meaningful time spent together in a positive and creative way.”
Scientists have been making progress in exploring why music should have this effect. In 2001, Dr. Anne Blood and Robert Zatorre of McGill University in Montreal used positron emission tomography, or PET scans, to find out if music stimulated certain brain structures.
In their studio, Blood and Zatorre asked 10 musicians, five men and five women, to choose soulful music. Subjects then underwent PET scans while listening to four types of audio stimuli: the selected music, other music, general noise, or silence. Each sequence was repeated three times in random order.
Blood said that when the subjects listened to the music that gave them “chills,” the PET scans detected activity in parts of the brain that are also stimulated by food and sex.
It is still not clear why humans developed such a biological appreciation of music. The appreciation of food and the drive for sex evolved to aid the survival of the species, but “music was not developed strictly for survival purposes,” Blood told the Associated Press at the time.
She also believes that because music activates the parts of the brain that make us happy, this suggests that it can benefit our physical and mental well-being.
This is good news for surgical patients who experience anxiety in anticipation of those procedures.
Polish researcher Zbigniew Kucharski, from the Warsaw Medical Academy, studied the effect of acoustic therapy for fear management in dental patients. During the period from October 2001 to May 2002, 38 dental patients aged between 16 and 60 years were observed. The patients received variations of acoustic therapy, a practice in which music is received through headphones as well as vibrators.
Dr. Kucharski found that negative feelings were reduced fivefold in patients who received 30 minutes of acoustic therapy before and after the dental procedure. For the group that listened to and felt music only before the operation, feelings of fear were reduced by a factor of only 1.6.
For the last group (the control), which received acoustic therapy only during the operation, there was no change in the degree of fear felt.
A 1992 study identified teaching music listening and relaxation as an effective way to reduce pain and anxiety in women undergoing painful gynecological procedures. And other studies have shown that music can reduce other ‘negative’ human emotions such as fear, anxiety and depression.
Sheri Robb and a team of researchers published a report in the Journal of Music Therapy in 1992, highlighting their findings that music-assisted relaxation procedures (listening to music, deep breathing, and other exercises) effectively reduced anxiety in pediatric surgical patients at a burn unit.
“Music,” says Esther Mok in AORN Journal in February 2003, “is an easy-to-administer, non-threatening, non-invasive, and inexpensive tool for calming preoperative anxiety.”
So far, according to the same report, researchers can’t be sure why music has a calming effect on many medical patients. One school of thought believes that music can reduce stress because it can help patients relax and also lower blood pressure. Another researcher claims that music allows the vibrations of the body to synchronize with the rhythms of those around it. For example, if an anxious patient with a racing heartbeat listens to slow music, his heart rate will slow down and synchronize with the rhythm of the music.
These results remain a mystery. The incredible ability music has to affect and manipulate emotions and the brain is undeniable, and yet remains largely unexplained.
In addition to brain activity, the effect of music on hormone levels in the human body can also be quantified, and there is definite evidence that music can reduce cortisol levels in the body (associated with arousal and stress) and Raise melatonin levels (which can induce sleep). It can also precipitate the release of endorphins, the body’s natural pain reliever.
But how does music manage to arouse emotions in us? And why are these emotions often so powerful? The simple answer is that no one knows… yet. So far we can quantify some of the emotional responses evoked by music, but we can’t yet explain them. But that’s okay. I don’t have to understand electricity to benefit from light when I turn on a lamp when I walk into a room, and I don’t have to understand why music can make me feel better emotionally. It just does: our Creator made us that way.