Music Therapy: A New Frontier

We all have a record or song that defines a difficult period in our lives: a song played on repeat after a messy break-up, a CD played over and over again after you leave home for the first time. Our experiences tell us that music has the power to capture our emotions and ease our way through difficult times, but there’s an increasing number of studies that show that music can be used as a therapeutic tool in healthcare.

Whoa whoa whoa. Music? As health care?

“But healthcare is science!” you shout.

“But music is art,” you reason.

“Not to borrow too heavily from The State/Rudyard Kipling, but science is science, art is art and never the twain shall meet, am I right?” you plead.

I know, I was surprised at first, too. I didn’t think that music could have significant, scientifically-supported effects on someone’s mental and physical health. But then I thought back to how the Pixies served as the soundtrack to my angry teen years, how after a hard break-up, country and bluegrass songs about loss started to clutter my iPod, and I had to give the idea some credence ““ I listened to music because it made me feel better, so who is to say that it couldn’t work on a larger scale?

Being a scientist, I couldn’t rely just on my own anecdotal, un-peer-reviewed, protocol-less experiences, so I jumped into the scientific literature to look for empirical evidence for the effectiveness of music therapy. Turns out, there was a lot of support for mixing art and science in health care. And it’s not just a niche therapy ““ music can be applied to a whole range of situations.

I mean, clearly there are limits, right? You can’t music away a broken leg. I could spend hours singing at your throat, but that won’t cure strep. However, music is increasingly being viewed as a tool to treat anxiety, depression, grief, and physical pain, among others. Music therapy can increase breastfeeding among mothers of premature newborns. It can ease the behavioral and depressive symptoms in people with dementia. It can serve as an appropriate, effective therapy for people with depression. It can work as an effective sedative compared with medicines. It can be used in the rehabilitation of stroke patients and to help patients and their families deal with terminal illnesses. It can even run through solid walls and put out burning buildings in a single breath”¦ OK, I made that last one up.

Still, even with my little fib, music therapy sounds incredibly promising. While music therapy and, honestly, all of art therapy, is still in its early stages, there’s a growing amount of evidence that integration of music and art into clinical settings could be useful for all involved ““ patients who seek medical help, hospitals which want to lower costs while providing a vast array of services, doctors, nurses, the whole shebang.

Best of all, music therapy can be either participatory (you create music or write songs) or more passive (you actively listen to music), which means that there’s no special musical ability required for music therapy. This is especially great news for me because I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket if my life depended on it. Further, there’s no one specific magic music. Remember the classical music for your brain craze in the 1990s where listening to classical music was supposed to make you smarter? Well, there’s no similar craze here (which is great because Mozart doesn’t exactly make you smarter). It’s not like jazz music is better for dealing with anxiety while those who are experiencing chronic or acute pain should stick with Latin Fusion. All that matters is that the music speaks to you.

Maybe this is a personal bias, but I love interdisciplinary collaboration: there’s so much room for exciting new ideas and partnerships. I am a complete outsider when it comes to health care and music therapy (an interested outsider, but an outsider nonetheless), and I will be tracking the field with great interest. I’m not expecting a huge medical revolution, but man, wouldn’t it be great if someone could write you a prescription for Earl Scruggs?

For more information about music therapy, please check out the American Music Therapy Association website.



5 replies on “Music Therapy: A New Frontier”

Totally. Art Therapy came up when I was doing my research for this piece. See, there was a music therapist convention in the area recently, so music therapy was all over the news and it’s what I was thinking about first. But the more I looked into it, the more I realized that the arts in general were being introduced to health care.

I really like it, honestly. It makes intuitive sense and now with the growing empirical evidence to back that intuition up, art, music, dance therapies all seem like winners.

Do you have any experience with art therapy?

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