“[Music] gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” – Plato
Unlike our eyes which can shutter out discriminating visions, our ears are always opened and tuned into our environment. The voice was the first accessible musical instrument used by our ancestors, and this power that generates from within our bodies has been used as a vital tool to curing what ails us.
Music major Karina Colon shares the exciting news with her parents of her involvement with the “Grief Choir” at her college (TWU). At the Texas Women’s University, she joins professor Lauren DiMaio and a small group of women to create a singing ensemble to help those trying to overcome depression through the cathartic experience of singing in a group. The choir and its repertoire are designed for alleviating the intense mourning of its members, especially those who have experienced losses of loved ones. Emotional music tends to be soothing to those in grief, and more so when it is sung together. Music therapists explain this effect, reasoning that the combination of the tonal component of the songs along with having the support of a group offers the grievers a sense of empathy and understanding. DiMaio not only sees musical therapy as a way for people to recover from tragedies, but also as a treatment that can heal beyond the spiritual and emotional realms.
Formal music therapy was first used in 1945 by the United States War Department in Army hospitals to treat military service members (Cleveland Clinic). Its use has been limited until recent years when many researchers have found new interests in an old approach to neuro-medicine and musical healing. Traditionally administered through the ears, passive listening is now often combined with a more active approach in therapeutic remedy to include movement, lyrical analysis, composition ideation, and instrument playing. Music therapy, particularly when integrated with medication, psychotherapy or other interventions, is becoming an increasingly accepted part of a patient’s treatment plan.
Although the medical community has begun to recognize the potential curative powers of music, few studies have examined the reasons behind such effects and under what conditions it can be optimized. Nevertheless, the research that has been conducted has yielded enough promising results to warrant further explorations. Using MRI and PET scanners to capture images, scientists have been analyzing the brain activities of people performing various undertakings such as math and visual arts (TED). They have discovered that different parts of the brain are utilized for specific tasks. For example, the parietal lobe is triggered during computation while the hippocampus is responsible for memory recall (UCF). But when neuroscientists analyzed MRI images of participants listening to music, they discovered that just a simple vibration in one’s ear – what the brain processes as a beautiful song – lights up and connects multiple parts of the cerebrum.
Even more of note, while scientists have likened the listening of music to a “backyard firework” in the brain, they compared playing an instrument to a “jubilee”. The difference between passively listening to a song versus playing the same song on an instrument is that the active participation not only engages the auditory and visual cortices, but also the fine motor dexterity controlled by both hemispheres of the brain. The bundle of fibers of the part of the brain that bridges the musician’s two sides have been shown to be denser and larger than their non-musical counterparts. Studies have suggested that playing an instrument, particularly when starting prior to the age of 7, could rewire our brains to be more nimble. Playing an instrument, one’s brain becomes adept with leveraging the separate functions of each hemisphere to work together (LA Times).
Because the different elements that make up a song, such as pitch, rhythm, harmony and melodies, engage in many of the same parts of the brain that also control speech, decision making, memory, movement and socialization, Harvard University neurologist Gottfried Schlaug believes that music therapy can “provide an alternative entry point” to access the injured or neurodivergent brain.
For stroke victims who suffer from aphasia, incorporating a form of singing that sounds much like a Gregorian chant into their speech therapy has helped develop the patients’ verbal fluency (LA Times). Schlaug hypothesizes that the “melodic intonation therapy” involved in the chanting reroutes around the damaged speech part of the left hemisphere to engage and train the right hemisphere in word acquisition.
Further, an Israeli study has found that premature babies who listened to at least 30 minutes of Mozart over a span of two days had positive weight gain (NIH). The music had reduced their resting energy expenditure and slowed their metabolism, to allow for the infants in the neonatal intensive care units to have increased growth.
Music therapy has also played an increasing role in helping those with movement disorders. “With rhythm, we can help a person with Parkison’s. They may walk without music, but they shuffle and can’t get going. With rhythm and with training, they can increase their gait and decrease their pausing. That also applies to people with strokes or brain injuries,” said Julie Guy, the chief operations officer of the Music Therapy Center in California (Tribune).
Using the steady and predictable tempo of the music, the brain can entice the motor regions to initiate and sustain a gait (LA Times). A 2021 preliminary trial made up of 24 Parkison’s Disease patients conducted with MedRhythms, a company dedicated to helping those with neurological disease and injuries, attempted to synchronize the patient’s walking pattern to musical cadence (Parkinson’s News Today). The treatment involves placing sensors in the patients’ shoes to measure initial patterns in gait. From a library playlist, the proprietary software then selects the songs with rhythms that it deemed most beneficial to synchronize with the patient’s gait using the science principles of rhythmic auditory stimulation (RAS). Results indicated gains in functional mobility, walking endurance, and motor difficulties after 28 days.
“It works well and it works instantaneously, and it’s hard to think of any medication that has this effect,” says Schlaug (LA Times).
And for patients who cannot tolerate medication such as some sufferers of dementia, drugs can have profound side effects that degenerates heart health or even shortens lives. Having an alternative to medication that does not have adverse cross reactions is an alternative that music therapy has offered. A 12-week interventional study, “Musical Bridges to Memory,” published in Dec. 2022 in the journal, Alzheimer Disease and Associated Disorders, provides insights into how songs played from the patient’s younger years can unlock forgotten autobiographical memories in order to cajole the dementia patients out of their isolation (LWW). Researchers have reported that nonverbal social interactions had significantly increased for those who participated in the program.
“You’re accessing different parts of the brain that may not be affected by the disease’s symptoms,” Sam Fanzio, senior director for quality care and psychosocial research for the Alzheimer’s Association, told US News & World Report (New York Post).
“That means memories associated with music are emotional memories, which never fade out — even in Alzheimer’s patients,” explains University of Central Florida neuroscientist Kiminobu Sugya (UCF).
Despite the plethora of advantages shown with music on the human brain, new research has unraveled adverse findings that merit further scrutiny of the benefits of music therapy.
“Applying music therapy without this consideration might cause more harm than good,” says Melita Belgrave, a music therapy professor at Arizona State University in Tempe. “If you’re using music, you can do harm if you’re not paying attention.” (Washington Post)
Researchers Manuel Gonzalez and John Aiello documented the conflicting effects of background music on students’ performance in their 2019 study, “More than meets the ear: Investigating how music affects cognitive task performance” (APA). The findings suggest that how well music can serve a student is ultimately based on individualized factors, and that choosing the right kind of background sound is like the Goldilocks conundrum – too much or too little musical stimulation for the specific task can result in suboptimal yield. Gonzalez and Aiello examined more sophisticated variables in their research. The first variable is the complexity of music, whether it is silent, simple with a singular instrument, or complex with multiple instruments. The second variable tweaked was the cognitive intensity of the task, whether it is easy with a search for the letter “A” from a word list, or more challenging like remembering word pairs. The last variable is the personality of the participant, which is rated using the Boredom Proneness Scale (NIH). Results resoundingly indicate that a one size solution does not fit for the different learner types. People, who easily get bored and consequently seek out external stimulation to compensate, scored far worse on both easy and challenging tasks when complex music was played as compared to when they were conducting them in silence. In contrast, those with lower needs for external stimulation benefited, in some cases significantly, with the use of any complexity of music when undertaking both easy and challenging tasks. This concept follows closely with psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s Cognitive-Capacity model, which suggests that the brain has a finite information processing ceiling, much like that of a computer. When parallel tasks tap into the same resource and demand exceeds supply, capacity interference is observed. It can be extrapolated that even low need learners might struggle in more extreme cognitive challenges that require more intense concentration as they would reach their cerebral capacity processing limits.
A similar 2015 study published by the National Institute of Health (NIH) confers similar findings that different music should serve different learner needs (NIH). 54 non-musicians were challenged with face encoding memory tasks while being exposed to background noises, including “joyful” and “emotional” music, rain, and silence. Blood pressure and heart rates were measured before and after exposures. At the end of the “sound session,” the group that had listened to emotional music had elevated hemodynamic parameters and achieved higher scores with their memory tasks. While rain and joyful music solicited faster response times for facial recognition challenges, these background noises also yielded the worst memory recall scores from the participants. This suggests that listening to music that is emotionally charged can stimulate the audiovisual encoding that helps in fortifying the non-musician’s brain at memory tasks. In contrast, rain and joyful composition pieces overload the perceptual channels and interfere with the participants’ ability to perform similar tasks.
Unlike upbeat lyrical and synthesized bass music that can serve to energize and motivate trained athletes at the gym or on their daily jogs, the results of recent studies suggest that discerning consideration is needed in selecting music for classrooms and office settings. Music choices are personalized not only to the listener but to the task involved. This could play a significant role in their performance, as teens should not be so quick to blast on their favorite OneRepublic soundtrack while studying for their U.S. History unit test.
Music is such a simple and accessible entertainment that can be leveraged to improve one’s well-being or to gain a cognitive edge by integrating it more effectively into one’s daily life. Playing an instrument offers what researchers call a “full-body workout for the brain.” One could try listening to soothing songs when finding catharsis, to upbeat tunes for energy, lofi for creativity, or Mozart for inspiration. The noninvasive neuroprotective nature of sound strummed aloud at a decibel that vibrates a harmonious pitch and tapped to a specific tempo can have the potency as effective as a painkiller to a sick patient in the Intensive Care Unit (Washington Post). Yet, the medical community has not been able to leverage its uses in more pervasive ways as many unanswered questions are still awaiting further research. The variation in music, its application on diseases and its interplay with the diverse listening population make it difficult to define a one-stop-shop solution. What constitutes a joyous or emotional melody to one person is perceived differently not only through biological differences but also through a cultural divide. The permutations of the factors at play seem as varied as the human DNA.
Like the unexplored limits of our brain, we have yet to scratch the surface of the curative powers and the possibility that music plays in our lives.