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Music to Heal the Mind, Heart, and Body

Older man listening to headphones
 

Humans have been making music ever since they realized that tapping two sticks together could create an engaging beat. Music can foster feelings of joy, unleash our creativity, and is often a key feature of our most enjoyable social gatherings. Ever versatile, music can set the tone for romance or relaxation, and can impel us to move our bodies, whether for exercise or self-expression.

In the mid-twentieth century, music therapy emerged as a discipline, and the development of modern technologies has since shed new light on how music can change the structure and function of the brain, improve mood, and help us recover after a stroke.

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Music and the Brain
One thing we have learned is that music is processed by a number of different areas of the brain, including ones involved in spoken language. Learning to play music changes the structure of our brains in a way that is somewhat analogous to how physical exercise tones our muscles and makes us stronger and more dexterous. A number of studies with healthy and clinical samples have shown temporary cognitive benefits associated with listening to pleasant music, including improved information processing speed, reasoning, attention and memory, and creativity.

In some studies, verbal material that was presented in a musical context was learned and recalled better than spoken verbal material. Music therapy has also helped people who have had strokes to improve their gait, mood, speech, social interactions, and to reduce visual neglect.

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Music Therapy and Visual Processing
Visual neglect is the inability to recognize objects in part of the visual field due to lesions in the visual cortex. Specifically, a lesion in one hemisphere produces neglect in the opposite visual field (so a stroke in the left visual cortex would result in one being unable recognize objects in the right visual field, and vice versa). In one study of stroke patients experiencing visual neglect, listening to pleasant music resulted in both better mood and a statistically significant improvement in their ability to describe the color and shape of geometric objects presented via computer. No such effects were observed when patients sat in silence or when they were presented with music that they did not like.

Further examination with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) confirmed that listening to pleasant music activated a number of different brain areas, including those involved in visual processing.

Memory, Attention, and Mood
The same team conducted another study, this time with 60 patients who had recently suffered a stroke. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups: a music group, an audio book group, or a control group receiving neither intervention. All groups otherwise received standard medical treatments. Those in the two audio groups were allowed to select either the music or audio books of their choice and were asked to listen for an hour daily for two months, and then more on their own after the intervention period ended.

Listening to music was associated with greater recovery of verbal memory and focused attention in the music group versus the other two. Furthermore, the music group participants had significantly less depression and confusion than those in the control group. This benefit was seen within the first three months of listening.

Those in the music group reported that listening helped them relax, increased their motor activity, and improved their moods. In both the music and audio book groups, participants said the experiences provided positive stimulation. Preliminary imaging results suggest that listening to music following a stroke may result in observable changes to the structure and function of the brain that enhance recovery.

The researchers speculate that the short-term cognitive benefits of music therapy post-stroke may be related to effects on the brain’s reward system and effects on the neurotransmitter dopamine, but the long-term effect is more likely due to improvements in mood somehow impacting improvements in verbal memory and attention. Music may also mitigate the negative effects of stress on the brain and body, and impact other neurotransmitters that play a role in recovery.

In summary, the act of listening to music has been associated with a number of benefits, including on mood, cognition, and physical functioning in healthy people and in clinical samples, such as those who have suffered a stroke. Although we are still learning about how and why music helps, it is worth making time for music to move your body, engage your mind, and soothe your soul.

References:

  1. American Music Therapy Association: http://www.musictherapy.org
  2. Thaut, M., & McIntosh, G. (2010). How Music Helps to Heal the Injured Brain. Therapeutic Use Crescendos Thanks to Advances in Brain Science. Cerebrum. http://dana.org/news/cerebrum/detail.aspx?id=26122
  3. Sarkamo, T., & Soto, D.  (2012). Music listening after stroke: Beneficial effects and potential neural mechanisms. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci., 1252, 266–281.

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Comments
  • kelly January 29th, 2013 at 4:41 PM #1

    music has been and will always be a pleasant and soothing experience. it can calm tempers and help fight depression. but seeing that its effects can be great even in situations like stroke and other more serious situations, we really should invest more in studying how it can be used to help people better. for all we know, a simple few minutes of music regularly may trump over even drugs, drugs that mostly have side effects!

  • Geoffrey January 30th, 2013 at 5:51 AM #2

    I’m fairly short tempered. The way I vent it out can range from throwing things around to screaming at the top of my voice. Several techniques I tried, like counting or even talking to myself didn’t seem to help. But I have observed that a few minutes of some of my favorite music does help. It includes mostly jazz but the effect it has is just magical. I may not calm instantly but in a few minutes things certainly change.

    Frankly I don’t care how it works. The end result is good and helps me control my rage. Music is powerful and is therapeutic, no doubt about that!

  • Phaedra January 30th, 2013 at 10:19 AM #3

    When my mom had shoulder surgery, I put together a CD of classical music (her favorite kind) to listen to while she was in the hospital. She really seemed to enjoy it and I think it helped her relax in the middle of what can be an unpleasant experience.

  • Ray J January 30th, 2013 at 10:20 AM #4

    I will have to tell my daughter about this information. She is very interested in art therapy as a career. However, she is an excellent pianist and often finds respite herself in music and playing the piano. I can see her working well with the aging population as well.

  • tammi January 30th, 2013 at 10:24 AM #5

    Law makers in Washington need to be aware of this study. It is yet another example of how the arts help the whole person. I so worry about arts education being cut in public schools. For some children, school is the only place they are exposed to genres of music other than top 40, rap, etc. Education really needs to be more aware of helping the whole child rather than just the ABC’s and 123′s. Studies show that incorporating arts education will, in fact, make teaching the ABC’s and 123′s more effective and it is not just fluff.

  • Violet January 30th, 2013 at 10:26 AM #6

    Does anyone know if music has been shown to help kids with ADHD? My son is always wanting to listen to music when he studies. He says it help him concentrate. But, I worry that his ADHD prevents him from processing music and whatever he is studying or working on at the same time. I am hoping he is not just listening to music to escape doing homework and studying.

  • ADRIAN January 30th, 2013 at 11:56 PM #7

    Music not only drives away the blues for me but helps me gain a positive mood too..I get more creative in such a mood,and it is sometimes surprising that more people do not derive benefits of something that only requires minimal investment but has so many benefits..!

  • Traci Stein January 31st, 2013 at 11:37 AM #8

    Thank you all for your comments. Music really can be very beneficial and it’s great to hear that so many of you have found this to be true.

    @Violet, it looks like there is some but not much research with music and ADHD. Preliminarily, it seems that music can activate the areas of the brain involved in paying attention, reasoning, and planning, and this may be beneficial for those who struggle with ADD/ADHD. I imagine the mood enhancing benefits of music could also be helpful for those who have attention issues, as we know that those with ADD/ADHD can experience frustration, depression, and anxiety. Although I would not recommend abandoning conventional treatment at this time, I don’t see why listening to music one enjoys could not be a wonderful adjunct.

    With regard to doing homework while listening to music, I’d say the test of whether that’s a good idea would be to see how well your son can attend to what he’s doing (and how much gets done) when listening to music versus not. If it makes him more likely to sit and do homework, it seems worth allowing him to do so. If it seems to get in the way, perhaps listening via a “music break” can be a reward for finishing an assignment.

    Thank you again for reading. For more health-related information, please follow me on Twitter (@DrTraciStein) or visit my blog or Facebook pages (drtracistein.wordpress.com and Facebook.com/DrTStein).

    Be well!

  • wilson January 31st, 2013 at 2:49 PM #9

    music is a blessing no doubt. that it has many benefits is no secret either. but do we have studies on specific types of music? some music just seems like noise. why can’t we have better music. it need not be noise and still serve all our moods!

  • Caleb January 31st, 2013 at 2:55 PM #10

    While I have heard others talk about this, I can’t seem to get anything done when listening to music except zone out. It kind of puts me in a trance and I can’t find a way to be productive at all!

  • simo August 28th, 2013 at 10:05 AM #11

    What kind of music is best for different conditions? Like what genre/composers/bands/singers are best for depression or for anxiety??? Thanks.

  • Jillian August 28th, 2013 at 7:00 PM #12

    Music therapists choose music based on the specific client or group of clients preferences. Music chosen is client centered which is why not one kind of music is universally pleasing. What one person finds to be relaxing may not be the case for another person.

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