"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.