You know how hearing the latest Beyoncé jam can instantly turn a so-so day around? Or how an epic love ballad can give you all the feels? That’s because music has major effects on the human brain. Since the 1940s, leading neurologists in America have been slowly demystifying this phenomenon and how music can be applied in modern medicine. The field is technically known as music therapy, a multi-faceted branch of psychology used to treat physical, mental, social, and emotional conditions.

What is Music Therapy Used For?

Music therapists are professionals trained to use music and/or musical instruments to promote communication and overall health and well-being in their patients. The method supports treatment of all sorts of ailments, from physical pain to substance abuse to high stress.

Music Benefits for Children

Music has shown to improve learning abilities in young children, especially those 5 years old and younger. Neurologists claim this is because of music’s foundations in mathematics (e.g., ratios and fractions).

In a study done by the Music Educators National Conference in 2001, high-school students who were actively involved in music—in school or outside of school—had much higher math and verbal scores than their nonmusical peers.

Music Therapy for Treating Heart Complications

Music has been proven to reduce heart and respiratory rates. In a study done by the Arts and Quality of Life Research Center, patients with coronary heart disease who listened to music experienced lowered blood pressure and reduced anxiety.

Misconceptions About Music Therapy

A common misconception is that music therapy can only help those with musical ability. However, music therapy has been shown to stimulate many of the same parts of the brain in nonmusical patients as in their musical counterparts.

Also, music therapy doesn’t always involve classical music. Many genres can be effective, and which one is used really depends on the patient’s preferences, circumstances, and goals.

Warnings

Listening to music at high volumes or amplitudes can sometimes lead to permanent hearing damage or loss. One condition is tinnitus, a buzzing in the ears that ranges from slight to severe. Some tinnitus patients even claim to incessantly hear sounds of animals or even popular songs.

In some rare cases, music has caused epileptic seizures, which can result in psychiatric complications. In a book devoted to studying this, Oliver Sacks, a professor of clinical neurology at Columbia University, writes of a woman who could not listen to a certain popular song for more than half a minute without succumbing to violent convulsions.

Potential of Music Therapy

The science of music therapy is still relatively young. With the proliferation of case studies, music is starting to make a comeback in the world of medicine—an area that’s been relatively dismissive towards music therapy because of its seemingly esoteric origins.


References and Resources

World Federation of Music Therapy Musicophilia; Oliver Sacks, PhD; 2007