While music has long been recognized as an effective form of therapy to provide an outlet for emotions, the notion of using song, sound frequencies and rhythm to treat physical ailments is a relatively new domain, says psychologist Daniel J. Levitin, PhD, who studies the neuroscience of music at McGill University in Montreal. A wealth of new studies is touting the benefits of music on mental and physical health. For example, in a meta-analysis of 400 studies, Levitin and his postgraduate research fellow, Mona Lisa Chanda, PhD, found that music improves the body’s immune system function and reduces stress. Listening to music was also found to be more effective than prescription drugs in reducing anxiety before surgery (Trends in Cognitive Sciences, April, 2013). “We’ve found compelling evidence that musical interventions can play a health-care role in settings ranging from operating rooms to family clinics,” says Levitin, author of the book “This is Your Brain on Music” (Plume/Penguin, 2007). The analysis also points to just how music influences health.
The researchers found that listening to and playing music increase the body’s production of the antibody immunoglobulin A and natural killer cells — the cells that attack invading viruses and boost the immune system’s effectiveness. Music also reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. “This is one reason why music is associated with relaxation,” Levitin says. One recent study on the link between music and stress found that music can help soothe pediatric emergency room patients (JAMA Pediatrics, July, 2013). In the trial with 42 children ages 3 to 11, University of Alberta researchers found that patients who listened to relaxing music while getting an IV inserted reported significantly less pain, and some demonstrated significantly less distress, compared with patients who did not listen to music. In addition, in the music-listening group, more than two-thirds of the health-care providers reported that the IVs were very easy to administer — compared with 38 percent of providers treating the group that did not listen to music.
“There is growing scientific evidence showing that the brain responds to music in very specific ways,” says Lisa Hartling, PhD, professor of pediatrics at the University of Alberta and lead author of the study. “Playing music for kids during painful medical procedures is a simple intervention that can make a big difference.” adult patients, too. Researchers at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in Singapore found that patients in palliative care who took part in live music therapy sessions reported relief from persistent pain (Progress in Palliative Care, July, 2013).
Music therapists worked closely with the patients to individually tailor the intervention, and patients took part in singing, instrument playing, lyric discussion and even song writing as they worked toward accepting an illness or weighed end-of-life issues. “Active music engagement allowed the patients to reconnect with the healthy parts of themselves, even in the face of a debilitating condition or disease-related suffering,” says music therapist Melanie Kwan, co-author of the study and president of the Association for Music Therapy, Singapore. “When their acute pain symptoms were relieved, patients were finally able to rest.”