The Surprising Healing Properties of Music Therapy

Written by Ryan Jones

In September 1993, distinguished musician and composer Yiannis Chryssomallis, known professionally as Yanni, collaborated with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra to host a concert event at the Acropolis in Athens. The event, which was televised in 65 countries and seen by over 500 million people, was released in 1994 as Yanni: Live at the Acropolis.

One of the music selections recorded during the event, Acroyali/Standing in Motion, gained the attention of researchers who were re-examining evidence that supported a controversial phenomenon known as the Mozart Effect.  The results of the original experiment, published in 1993 by researchers at the University of California, claimed that students exposed to Mozart’s Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos K488 exhibited a temporary increase in spatial reasoning. Yanni’s Acroyali/Standing in Motion was found to produce a similar effect. Though subsequent research challenged the claims, the ensuing debate renewed enthusiasm in the scientific community to provide more insight into an ancient and intriguing question: Can the simple act of listening to music have a quantifiable effect on mental and physical health?

Music and Mental Health

Research indicates that music has a positive effect on cognitive function — in sickness and in health. A 2011 study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry claims a group of 32 patients suffering with depression demonstrated advanced recovery from symptoms when using standard therapy methods combined with music therapy.

“Current research into music therapy and depression points to a significant and persistent reduction in patients’ symptoms and to improvements in their quality of life,” researchers report in a study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health (NLM-NIH). 

Recent research also indicates that music can reduce anxiety in pre- and post-op patients, increase self-esteem in older adult subjects and improve mental outlook in those suffering from cancer.

Standardizing Music Therapy

While philosophers and doctors have postulated the therapeutic value of music for centuries, palpable evidence based research commenced in the United States during the 1940s. In the aftermath of World War II, hundreds of institutionalized veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder showed signs of improvement when exposed to music played by volunteer musicians. The ensuing surge of physician requests for more musicians led to the formation of the National Association of Music Therapy, whose goal was to standardize music therapy as a legitimate form of evidencebased treatment and promote further research on the subject.  In 1998, the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA), which currently represents the largest group of organized music therapists in the world, was formed. Among other accomplishments, the AMTA established official curriculum for prospective music therapists to pursue in order to be recognized professionally. Today, candidates must pursue a bachelor’s degree in music therapy, complete a 1,000-hour internship and sit for a board exam.

Music and Physical Health

The efficacious value of music extends beyond the bounds of psychology. Several studies have confirmed that music therapy can be effective at reducing seizures and epileptiform discharges, thus providing a new option for clinicians in the treatment of epilepsy, according to a 2015 NLM-NIH report.

Research also backs music’s therapeutic value in other studies:

  • Exposure to music in preterm infants has been linked to increased feeding and weight gain, reduced heart rates and deeper sleep patterns.
  • Music was found to have a positive affect on behavioral disturbances associated with advanced Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
  • Stroke victims have shown as much as a 60 percent increase in verbal memory skills when combining music therapy with traditional treatments.
  • Music treatments have been found to aid pain reduction efforts in children and teens suffering with serious illness.

Music Therapy as a Clinical Treatment  

While evidence supporting the therapeutic value of music is abundant in a variety of situations, clinical applications involve more than grabbing an iPod and plugging in a set of headphones. AMTA reports that professionally recognized music therapy must:

  1. Be supported by scientific evidence
  2. Involve specific and quantifiable treatment goals
  3. Be carried out by a board-certified therapist after careful assessment of a patient’s needs Treatment can entail the use of a variety of musical instruments ranging from percussion to piano to guitar and can involve active and/or passive patient participation.

Why is Music Therapy Effective?  

Studies of music function on the brain using EEG and MRI equipment have produced remarkable findings:

  • Listening to unfamiliar classical selections produced consistently similar MRI images among a group of students with diverse personalities and music taste.
  • Music produced a 9 percent increase in dopamine levels in students listening to a selection of choice.
  • Music increased cerebral blood flow when subjects experienced emotional response to a song.
  • Music increased EEG activity, particularly in the frontal lobe, in epileptic patients — even while in a comatose state. 

Dr. Kamal Chemali, neurologist and founder of the Sentara Music and Medicine Center in Norfolk, said in a recent interview that the autonomic nervous system “controls things in our physiology that are not under our direct control, such as heart beat, blood pressure or how we digest food. Music has a very powerful effect on this system.”

Enough evidence currently exists on the subject to convince some insurance plans to support music therapy as a supplemental treatment method.

Practical Benefits of Music  

One need not be a patient in distress or a fan of classical music to enjoy the practical benefits of music. The act of processing music activates multiple regions of the brain. Research suggests the more actively the person is involved, the stronger the response. Music therapy researcher Anita Collins says that learning to play an instrument is the equivalent of a full body workout for the brain and has been proven to increase the brain’s capacity to learn a new language. Upbeat music has been shown to increase endurance and strength performance in the gym. Listening to soft music while studying has been shown to improve test scores. Conversely, caustic music has been found to have a negative effect on symptoms of depression. While not everyone has the same propensity to connect to the notes, music appears to have a profound effect in helping improve mental and physical well-being. Depending on circumstances, music can be a lifeline in difficult moments.  In a recent interview, Yanni cited an account set forth by a follower who claimed abatement in suicidal thoughts while listening to one of his compositions — a far more valuable accolade than being linked to the Mozart effect. 

“When I was listening to (the) music,” the man said,“it allowed me to be sad, but it gave me hope – it picked me up at the end.”

  • Lisa C Williams

    What do you think about music and sleep? Does it help or hinder?

  • Brian M. Freer

    I’m no expert, but it probably depends on the type of music. I took my 8-year-old to the symphony and she could not stay awake during the slow pieces.

About the author

Ryan Jones

Ryan is a freelance writer, fitness enthusiast, and twenty-year veteran of integrated pest management. He has given presentations and published articles in the Williamsburg area for over eight years.