It’s almost impossible to find someone who doesn’t feel a strong connection to music. Even if you can’t carry a tune or play an instrument, you can probably reel off a list of songs that evoke happy memories and raise your spirits. Surgeons have long played their favorite music to relieve stress in the operating room, and extending music to patients has been linked to improved surgical outcomes. In the past few decades, music therapy has played an increasing role in all facets of healing.
What is music therapy?
Music therapy is a burgeoning field. People who become certified music therapists are usually accomplished musicians who have deep knowledge of how music can evoke emotional responses to relax or stimulate people or help them heal. They combine this knowledge with their familiarity with a wide variety of musical styles to find the specific kind that can get you through a challenging physical rehab session or guide you into meditation. And they can find that music in your favorite genre, be it electropop or grand opera.
Holly Chartrand, a music therapist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, first trained as a vocalist. She decided to become a music therapist when she realized that she could use music to support others just as it had supported her throughout her life. “The favorite part of my job is seeing how big an impact music can have on someone who isn’t feeling well,” she says.
Music therapists know few boundaries. They may play music for you or with you, or even teach you how to play an instrument. On a given day, Chartrand may be toting a tank drum, a ukulele, or an iPad and speakers into a patient’s room. “Technology gives us so much access to all kinds of music that I can find and play almost any kind of music you like,” she says.
The evidence for music therapy’s benefits
A growing body of research attests that music therapy is more than a nice perk. It can improve medical outcomes and quality of life in a variety of ways. Here’s a sampling:
Easing anxiety and discomfort during procedures. In controlled clinical trials of people having colonoscopies, cardiac angiography, or knee surgery, those who listened to music before their procedure had less anxiety and less need for sedatives. People who listened to music in the operating room reported less discomfort during their procedure. And those who heard music in the recovery room used less opioid medication for pain.
Restoring lost speech. Music therapy can help people who are recovering from a stroke or traumatic brain injury that has damaged the left-brain region responsible for speech. Because singing ability originates in the right side of the brain, people can work around the injury to the left side of their brain by first singing their thoughts and then gradually dropping the melody. Former U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords used this technique to enable her to testify before a Congressional committee two years after a gunshot wound to her brain destroyed her ability to speak.
Reducing side effects of cancer therapy. Listening to music reduces anxiety associated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It can also quell nausea and vomiting for patients receiving chemotherapy.
Helping with physical therapy and rehabilitation. If you exercise to a playlist, you’ve probably noticed that music helps you stick to your routine. In fact, a 2011 analysis of several studies suggests that music therapy enhances people’s physical, psychological, cognitive, and emotional functioning during physical rehabilitation programs.
Aiding pain relief. Music therapy has been tested in a variety of patients, ranging from those with intense short-term pain to those with chronic pain from arthritis. Over all, music therapy decreases pain perception, reduces the amount of pain medication needed, helps relieve depression in pain patients, and gives them a sense of better control over their pain.
Improving quality of life for people with dementia. Because the ability to engage with music remains intact late into the disease process, music therapy can help to evoke memories, reduce agitation, assist communication, and improve physical coordination.