Can Music Heal Illnesses, Diseases, and Disorders?

Amanda Luzzader

Can music be used as medical treatment?

Most people like music. Some of us relax to the gentle strains of classical compositions. Others thrash about listening to hard rock tracks. Lots of people love jazz; others prefer hip-hop. Music-lovers can get rather snobbish about their selections, but lots of us are happy with “whatever’s playing on the radio.” Not everyone sings in the shower or keeps their earbuds inserted permanently, but most people have a favorite record album, singer, or at least a favorite song.

Humans have been making and listening to music for a very long time. An artifact found in Slovenia known as the Divje Babe Flute (a fragment of cave bear bone with what appear to be flute holes drilled into it) hints that Neanderthals may have been using musical instruments between 43,000 and 82,000 years ago. Some experts say that forms of music such as rhythm, chanting, or singing may date back to 300,000 years ago, although it’s impossible to verify.

But we don’t need scientific findings to know that since the dawn of history music has earned a starring role in the lives of humankind. Music plays continuously at the supermarket, in restaurants and bars, in our cars, and we apparently need Muzak even during short trips in elevators. Music plays in movies and TV shows, we use it to regulate our moods, and it helps the world’s babies get off to sleep.

So, can music be used as medical treatment?

According to a report from ScienceDaily, the number of people who suffer from the disorder known as generalized anxiety has risen steadily over the past three decades, especially among young people. Music is known anecdotally to soothe those who suffer from anxiety. In fact, it has been suggested that music could be as or more effective than anxiety medications.

“However,” states the ScienceDaily report, “quantitative data on the effects of personalized music on anxiety has been lacking.”

A recent study shed some new light on the matter. Researchers randomly selected 163 patients who were taking anti-anxiety medications and administered a treatment involving music, auditory-beat stimulation (ABS), music and ABS together, or just pink noise without music or ABS. The 24-minute treatment was administered using an app on the patients’ smart phones. Among the patients who reported moderate anxiety before the treatment session, reductions in the physical symptoms of anxiety were observed in those who listened to the music treatment and the treatment consisting of ABS and music together–compared to those who listened only to the pink noise. This led the authors of the study to conclude that the music- and rhythm-based auditory stimulation can be effective in reducing state anxiety, which would offer a rather simple and easily administered method of treating the disorder.

Next, according to an article authored by the Mayo Clinic, while music may not be able to cure or reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, research suggests that “listening to or singing songs can provide emotional and behavioral benefits for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.” This is because memories of music and lyrics are evidently preserved at times in key brain areas that remain undamaged by Alzheimer’s. The Mayo Clinic article goes on to say that not only can music relieve the stress, anxiety, depression, and agitation associated with dementia, it can also help those who care for dementia patients by lifting the mood and providing ways to connect personally with dementia patients.

On a related note, a 2014 University of California Irvine study demonstrated that otherwise healthy adults ages 60 to 85 experienced memory and mental processing improvements after three months of weekly, 30-minute piano lessons along with three hours of weekly practice. A control group with no lessons and practice exhibited none of the same cognitive improvements.

And finally, this: “Music therapy, or just listening to music, can be good for the heart.” That claim arose from a 2019 report from Harvard Medical School’s news website and based on a series of stories about patients who listened to music during various kinds of convalescence.

In the first account, a medical team demonstrated that bed-ridden patients who listened to music for 30 minutes daily had lower blood pressure and slower heart rates than those who didn’t listen to music every day. Another medical team, this one at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, discovered that patients recovering from heart attacks who listened to restful music for 20 minutes each day were less anxious than those who did not listen to music. And at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, patients who listened to daily music while recovering from cardiac surgery reported less post-op pain than those who recovered without music.

Can a song by your favorite 80s band heal a broken arm? Can a Mozart aria cure cancer? We’ll have to wait for more data before we tackle those questions, but music clearly has beneficial health effects–just don’t turn up those earbuds too loud.

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