Us humans are instinctively drawn to music, although we may not always know why. We put on some energetic tunes when we’re feeling happy, we find comfort in sad songs when we’re down, and we focus better on work when we listen to classical music.
You probably have an all-time favorite song that brightens your day no matter what and that makes even annoying chores like folding the laundry or ironic a little bit more bearable. But did you know that music is more than just a feel-good activity and that it actually has proven medical benefits?
What is music therapy?
Music therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music in treating certain medical conditions and achieving personalized therapeutic goals.
The key words here are “clinical” and “evidence-based”. Music therapy doesn’t just involve listening to a random piece of music. This type of therapy is actually carefully overseen by a certified professional, who uses carefully chosen songs to promote a certain type of healing: physical, emotional, mental, social, or spiritual.
The end goal is, of course, to improve the patient’s quality of life, but experts emphasize that music therapy works best when it is integrated with existing medication and treatment.
Types of music therapy
Depending on the goal that needs to be achieved, music therapy can be applied in two ways:
- Receptive music therapy – this is when the patient listens to music especially chosen by the therapist. The main benefit of this type of therapy is that it reduces stress and anxiety and promotes relaxation. Although receptive music therapy cannot change the diagnostic, it can reduce the stress symptoms associated with illness and helps patients cope. For example, music in hospitals has been shown to improve the patients’ state of mind and, when played during surgery, it helped surgeons focus better.
- Active music therapy – when the patients make music by singing or playing instruments. Scientists are currently researching whether the use of harmonicas can improve lung function in patients with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and some nursing homes help elders overcome physical difficulties by teaching them how to basic musical instruments.
These types of music therapy can be done either in individual sessions or in group meetings, but, in general, the individual approach is the most popular one, because patients can freely talk about their feelings with the therapist.
Why do we respond to music so well?
The majority of physicians who recommended music therapy to their patients reported excellent results, so why does this happen?
- Our brains can process and detect music from a very early age. Music precedes language, which is why mothers instinctively sing lullabies to their children in so many cultures.
- We respond to music. Every song we listen to triggers a physiological response, such as shivers or a change in heart rhythm.
- Singing and listening to music share the same neural circuits as speaking, which is why therapists use music as a way of teaching their patients to communicate. For example, people who have suffered a stroke can use music as a way of learning how to talk again.
Science-back ways that music therapy can benefit your health and wellness
According to the American Music Therapy Association, there are seven main areas that music can improve:
- Improve communication skills
- Reduce stress
- Increase wellness levels
- Help cope with pain
- Better express thoughts and feelings
- Memory enhancement
- Aid in physical recovery
The effectiveness of music therapy has been noted especially in the treatment of mental disorders and psychologists report excellent results in managing numerous mental health issues:
One of the biggest problems that patients with autism are confronted with is the difficulty to communicate and interact socially. Recent research suggests that music therapy can improve social communication skills in autistic children because they have a heightened interest in sounds.
Alzheimer’s Syndrome and other degenerative brain conditions lead to a loss of cognitive function: memory, special awareness, reasoning, judgment, all of these can be affected. In people with dementia, music has become more than a hobby, it’s an actual health necessity because it helps them alleviate symptoms and increase their quality of life. Studies show that listening to music regularly not only reduces mood swings and aggressive behavior but also helps dementia patients create beautiful memories with their loved ones. In the UK, for example, there’s even a campaign called 'Music for Dementia 2020', which aims to make music available to everyone living with dementia by 2020.
Low self-esteem in teenagers
School stress, family problems, bullying, or hormonal changes can trigger negative thought patterns and make teenagers lose their self-esteem and isolate themselves. More and more psychologists say that they use inspirational music to encourage teenage patients to overcome their fears and cope with exam stress. Needless to say, active music therapy is also recommended, because singing and playing instruments have been proven to boost self-expression.
Anxiety & depression
Music therapy can increase responsiveness to antidepressant medication and increase the quality of life by reducing high heart rate and blood pressure. Some clinical studies even show that long-term music therapy may even reduce the length of depressive states and help patients feel better about themselves. Music reduces the level of stress hormones and can be successfully used as a natural anxiety relief method.
Whether it occurs as a side-effect of medication or as a result of stress, insomnia can have lasting consequences on your health. Music therapy before bedtime has been proven to help patients with insomnia fall asleep faster, sleep for longer, and have less sleep disturbance.
As with any kind of therapy, not all patients respond the same and some precautions need to be taken (such as listening to music at a reasonable volume), but if you love music and are struggling with a mental health issue, talk to your doctor about incorporating it into your treatment plan.
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