Just about everybody can recall a song that has made them giddy with happiness or brought back painful memories of someone who broke their heart. Now, researchers are exploring the power of music to make you healthy as well.
From the very young to the very old, science is uncovering roles for music in everything from releasing tension and improving mood to helping brain damaged stroke patients regain their ability to walk.
"Music is typically seen as benign," says Dr. O.J. Sahler, professor of pediatrics, psychiatry, medical humanities and oncology at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York. "People take it for granted as opposed to thinking about how rhythm and melody can be used to induce states that would be useful."
And researchers are getting closer to understanding how music — whether played, sung or simply listened to — works its magic. Over the past decade, major strides have been made in figuring out the neurological basis for its beneficial effects, helping music therapy and its practitioners make the move into the mainstream.
"We are really at a crossroads where certain forms of music therapy will really break through and become widely accepted and practiced because you have the science to back it up," explains Michael Thaut, professor of graduate music therapy and neuroscience and director of the Center for Biomedical Research in Music at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
Music as Therapist
Because music is so strongly linked to emotions, some music therapists use it as a tool for processing moods. Using what is known as "isomoodic" therapy, a therapist and a patient will decide on a piece of music that the patient wants to hear that fits with their current mood, and then gradually work towards more positive selections.
"Let's say you are feeling very angry about something so you may want to start out with music that is very expressive of that anger," explains Sahler. "Over the course of 45 minutes, you work into something which is much more calming and soothing to the point where you relax."
During the course of such sessions, music can help people address issues, like what made them so angry in the first place. Other music therapists allow patients to pen lyrics to songs and use that as a vehicle of self-expression.
Because of music's ability to evoke feelings that may be difficult to verbalize, its use as a therapeutic vehicle for emotions makes a lot of sense to some researchers.
"[Music] allows something to unfold and be released and expressed that can really help [people] begin their healing process," says Dr. Steven Johnson, medical director for the Paracelsus Foxhollow Clinic in Louisville, Ky.
The potentially calming and stress relieving benefits of music have also been explored for improving behavioral problems related to obsessive compulsive disorder, autism and attention deficit disorder.
But you don't necessarily need a therapist to evoke music's soothing powers. Its healing potential is something that anyone can easily tap into, with no harmful side effects. "It's a superb self-help remedy. You almost can't give yourself too much of it," says Sahler who adds that what one person finds edgy or soothing is pretty subjective: One man's punk is another man's Handel.
The benefits of music can also transcend the psychological to the management of symptoms like pain and nausea during invasive procedures like bone marrow transplantation.
"What we're looking at is symptom management," says Sahler who recalls one of the earliest known uses of music during a medical procedure was reported by a surgeon in the early 20th century. "And we have shown some startling changes in terms of how people are feeling so that they are improving tremendously."
The changes cited by Sahler may reduce or eliminate the need for medications otherwise used to manage these symptoms, she adds. And they have been measured physiologically. Sahler's research with bone marrow transplant recipients has found that those who received music therapy during the transplantation process showed signs of immune system recovery as much as two days faster than those who did not.
While the physiologic mechanisms behind this healing are not yet understood, significant strides have been made in uncovering how music affects the brain.
"The brain that engages in music is changed by engaging in music," says Thaut who explains why listening to music can potentially impact health. "The basic skeleton for music is rhythm and rhythm is one of the most important elements of music that influences how the brain organizes time."
The effect of rhythm on timing in the brain can be used to help Parkinson's patients and stroke patients retrain their ability to walk in time with musical rhythm. This rhythm can also be used to improve speech articulation and fluency disorders. Additionally, music may also have applications in improving learning and memory for people with diseases like Alzheimer's.
With so many possible applications, the future of music therapy appears promising and may be limited only by the inability to research all potential avenues. "There are loads of applications that we just haven't given ourselves the opportunity to explore," says Sahler.
So feel good about cranking up that cheesy pop song on the radio and singing out at the top of your lungs. If it makes you happy, it may be making you healthy.