Music therapy is the use of music by health care professionals to promote healing and enhance quality of life for their patients. Music therapy may be used to encourage emotional expression, promote social interaction, relieve symptoms, and for other purposes. Music therapists may use active or passive methods with patients, depending on the individual patient’s needs and abilities. The idea of music as a healing influence which could affect health and behavior is as least as old as the writings of Aristotle and Plato. Native Americans and other indigenous groups have used music to enhance traditional healing practices for centuries. Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners have used music for healing. Traditional ragas (“melodic modes” used in classical music in India) have also been used to create different states of mind for healing.
The 20th century profession formally began after World War I and World War II when community musicians of all types, both amateur and professional, went to Veterans hospitals around the country to play for the thousands of veterans suffering both physical and emotional trauma from the wars. The patients’ notable physical and emotional responses to music led the doctors and nurses to request the hiring of musicians by the hospitals. It was soon evident that the hospital musicians needed some prior training before entering the facility and so the demand grew for a college curriculum. A very brief historical glimpse of this fascinating profession follows, below. The earliest known reference to music therapy appeared in 1789 in an unsigned article in Columbian Magazine titled “Music Physically Considered.” In the early 1800s, writings on the therapeutic value of music appeared in two medical dissertations, the first published by Edwin Atlee (1804) and the second by Samuel Mathews (1806).
Atlee and Mathews were both students of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a physician and psychiatrist who was a strong proponent of using music to treat medical diseases. The 1800s also saw the first recorded music therapy intervention in an institutional setting (Blackwell’s Island in New York) as well as the first recorded systematic experiment in music therapy (Corning’s use of music to alter dream states during psychotherapy). Early associations with the interest in music therapy continued to gain support during the early 1900s leading to the formation of several short-lived associations. In 1903, Eva Augusta Vescelius founded the National Society of Musical Therapeutics. In 1926, Isa Maud Ilsen founded the National Association for Music in Hospitals. And in 1941, Harriet Ayer Seymour founded the National Foundation of Music Therapy.
Although these organizations contributed the first journals, books, and educational courses on music therapy, they unfortunately were not able to develop an organized clinical profession. In the 1940s, three persons began to emerge as innovators and key players in the development of music therapy as an organized clinical profession. Psychiatrist and music therapist Ira Altshuler, MD promoted music therapy in Michigan for three decades. Willem van de Wall pioneered the use of music therapy in state-funded facilities and wrote the first “how to” music therapy text, Music in Institutions (1936). E. Thayer Gaston, known as the “father of music therapy,” was instrumental in moving the profession forward in terms of an organizational and educational standpoint. The first music therapy college training programs were also created in the 1940s.
Michigan State University established the first academic program in music therapy (1944) and other universities followed suit, including the University of Kansas, Chicago Musical College, College of the Pacific, and Alverno College. I was going to pick a few of these and talk about them but, all in all, music therapy helps so many people that I will talk about the overall outcome of what music therapy does for everyone I have listed: Children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly with mental health needs, developmental and learning disabilities, Alzheimer’s disease and other aging related conditions, substance abuse problems, brain injuries, physical disabilities, and acute and chronic pain, including mothers in labor, plus soldiers with PTSD. Scientific studies have shown the value of music therapy on the body, mind, and spirit of children and adults.
Researchers have found that music therapy, when used with anti-nausea drugs for patients receiving high-dose chemotherapy, can help ease nausea and vomiting. A number of clinical trials have shown the benefit of music therapy for short-term pain, including pain from cancer. Some studies have suggested that music may help decrease the overall intensity of the patient’s experience of pain when used with pain-relieving drugs. Music therapy can also result in decreased need for pain medicine in some patients, although studies on this topic have shown mixed results. In hospice patients, one study found that music therapy improved comfort, relaxation, and pain control. Another study found that quality of life improved in cancer patients who received music therapy, even as it declined in those who did not. No differences were seen in survival between the 2 groups.
A more recent clinical trial looked at the effects of music during the course of several weeks of radiation treatments. The researchers found that while emotional distress (such as anxiety) seemed to be helped at the beginning of treatment, the patients reported that this effect gradually decreased. Music did not appear to help such symptoms as pain, fatigue, and depression over the long term. Other clinical trials have revealed a reduction in heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, insomnia, depression, and anxiety with music therapy. No one knows all the ways music can benefit the body, but studies have shown that music can affect brain waves, brain circulation, and stress hormones. These effects are usually seen during and shortly after the music therapy. Studies have shown that students who take music lessons have improved IQ levels, and show improvement in nonmusical abilities as well. Other studies have shown that listening to music composed by Mozart produces a short-term improvement in tasks that use spatial abilities.
Studies of brain circulation have shown that people listening to Mozart have more activity in certain areas of the brain. This has been called the “Mozart effect.” Although the reasons for this effect are not completely clear, this kind of information supports the idea that music can be used in many helpful ways. Music affects people in ways that no other art or therapy can match; it distracts the mind, slows the body’s rhythms, alters moods, and influences behavior. It seems that music holds universal appeal and provides a bridge in a non-threatening setting between people and individuals within their environment. It facilitates relationships, learning, self-expression and communication. Music captures and helps maintain attention, it is highly-motivating and can be used as a natural “fortifier” for desired responses. Music therapy can enable people without verbal communication to communicate, participate and express themselves nonverbally. It also assists in the development of verbal communication, speech, and language skills.
Music provides concrete, multi-layer/sensory stimulation, in visual, tactile, vestibular, and auditory. Researchers have shown that the power of rhythmic drumming helps those with motor control illnesses, such as Parkinson’s disease. In that it uses regular tempo and rhythms to overcome their fast, slow and sometimes frozen moments. Using music in labor and delivery, helps the mother with improved abilities to walk and decreased pain in labor. In children fighting cancer exposed to singing showed an increase of the antibody IgA – a key component in stimulating immune system that helps the body fight the disease. For those with profound cognitive impairments, autism, and mental and physical disabilities, their brains respond more easily to music therapy than to speech. When in tachycardia, cardiac patients were able to reduce their heart rates to 50-60 beats per minute when listening to music that was exactly 50-60 beats a minute.
Mentally handicapped children participating in music therapy programs has increased concentration, performance, self-control, and improved speech. For chronic pain patients, bringing into resonance the vibrations of pain with the vibrations of music alters the psychological perception of pain – even altering the pain or eliminating it. Increasing brainwaves has proven effective for people with ADHD and ADD, and various other learning disabilities. Slowing down the brainwaves has shown to help patients get to sleep, relax, find passion and happiness. The ability of music to change our mood seems to be related to the production of different chemicals in the brain. Endorphins triggered by music listening and music-making provide a kind of natural pain relief, where dopamine leads to feelings of buoyancy, optimism, energy and power. Impacts are even more potent for group music-making, because shared, positive experiences also release oxytocin, a brain tool for building trust.
In this way, musical relationships develop encouraging non-verbal and emotional expression and building self-esteem, motivation and confidence. Symposium organizer Gabe Turow, a visiting scholar at the time in Stanford’s Department of Music, compared the effects of music therapy to taking medication. “We may be sitting on one of the most widely available and cost effective therapeutic modalities that has ever existed”, he also stated “Systematically, this could be like taking a pill. Listening to music seems to be able to change brain functioning to the same extent as medications, in many circumstances.”