Music as Medicine – The Healing Power of Music

We all love listening to music. I haven’t met a single person yet, who doesn’t enjoy music. When we are gloomy, when we happy and when we are bored, we put on our headphones and listen to our favorite songs. Though we all consider music as a mode of relaxation or entertainment, very few of us view it as a medicine having magical healing and therapeutic properties.

Several scientific studies have been conducted to indicate the healing power of music and its role in improving our cognitive ability, reducing stress levels, relieving acute pain and causing several other positive changes in our body and mind. These interesting studies have given rise to a new form of therapy called Music therapy. Music therapy involves using music to promote physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing. Music has been used for healing since ancient times. In 1998 the American Music Therapy Association was established to further advance the application of music therapy. In India the practice of music therapy is not that widespread but it’s slowly gaining significance here also.

William.J.Cromie, writer for the Harvard Gazette explains the manner in which our brain processes music. There is a spiral sheet in our inner ear. The sounds of music pluck this spiral sheet, which activates the brain cells in the hearing portion of our brain. The activated brain cells generate the conscious experience of music. There is no single region in the brain that is entirely dedicated to the perception of music. Though right side of the brain is usually considered to be associated with music, studies being carried out on people suffering from brain damage shows that both right and left side take part in perceiving music.

Listening to music enhances our concentration and creativity. It has also been found to improve our cognitive ability. Psychologist George Lozanov conducted a study to test the effect of music on memory and learning. The study found that when students learning foreign languages listened to classical music they could learn around 1,000 new words in a day. Their memory and retention rate increased to a very high level.

Music therapy has been used in the treatment of several illnesses. Given below are some of the diseases and illnesses with which music therapy has been associated –

Music and Stroke

The patient, enters the room of the therapist in his wheelchair. The therapist asks him to utter “I am thirsty” Having suffered a stroke that has damaged the part of his brain involved in speech, the patient tries to speak but to no avail. The therapist then chants “I am thirsty” as a song and asks the patient to repeat. “I am thirsty” He sings back. This patient is undergoing music therapy known as Melodic Intonation therapy. The stroke patients who do not show any improvement after speech therapies, often experience positive changes after music therapy. Gottfried Schlaug, a neurologist from Harvard has been conducting clinical trials to find out more about music therapy. “So far the results of the trials have been really positive” says Gottfried. In the stroke patients who participated in these trials, the left side of the brain had been damaged. The left side is the one responsible for speech. Through music therapy these patients were able to tap into similar areas in the right side of the brain. The right brain showed some structural and functional changes when compared before and after the therapy. Once the stroke victims learned to sing sentences, they could easily learn to speak out those sentences.

Music and Heart diseases

We  all know about the effects of music on our breathing rate, heart beat and blood pressure. A study conducted by researchers at Italy’s University of Pavia confirmed the benefits of music for our cardiovascular system. Dr. Bernardi and his colleagues conducted the study on music to further expand its use in hospitals for heart patients. In this experiment involving 24 test volunteers, the volunteers were asked to listen to the playlist composed of six different styles of music with 2 minutes pauses between each piece of music. The study came up with the following observations–

Music with faster beats had a stimulating effect while slow music had more relaxing effects.

During the pauses, the heart beat, blood pressure and breathing rate of the volunteers returned to normal levels sometimes even healthier levels when compared to the level before listening to music. The Mayo clinic in Rochester uses music to reduce tension and stress in patients who have undergone cardiovascular surgery. This aids in faster recovery by causing the patients to relax and adopt an optimistic state of mind.

Music and Alzheimer

In the people suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia, music has been known to restore lost memory. “Music stimulates the dormant areas of brain that cannot be accessed due to degenerative disease” says Concetta Tomaino,executive director of Institute for Music and Neurologic function. Concetta has been carrying out research for more than 30 years to study the effect of music on brain. She conducted a study where dementia patients were subjected to 1 hour of music therapy 3 times a week for 10 months. Their scores on the cognitive-function test were found to improve by 50% at the end of the therapy.

Music and Autism

Autistic children have problem communicating with others which keeps them confined in their personal world. Music touches them emotionally thereby motivating these children to interact with others and express themselves freely. Music therapy activities like singing songs and rhythm exercises improve their focus and memory.

Music and Depression

Music is a great stress reliever. In a research conducted by Hanser and Thompson, music could uplift the mood of elderly people suffering from depression. When it comes to depression it’s better to listen to an inspiring and exhilarating music rather than sad songs which could make you feel worse.

The power of music is yet to be explored fully but there is no doubt that music has a profound effect on our body, mind and soul. So whenever you find yourself in a gloomy mood, your boss doesn’t seem to stop yelling at you or your stressful life is driving you crazy, you know what to do. Instead of venting out your fury and frustration just grab your iPod, plug in your earphones and switch on your favorite music. Get carried away by the musical waves and you will feel relaxed and happy in an instant.

Swati R

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