While awareness of the power of music to move and transport people is common, less recognition exists for the truly transformative therapeutic potential of music.
Singing, dancing, playing, listening to and composing music are all utilised within music therapy. Their involvement in activating our primordial neurobiology creates an efficacy that is generally universal and irresistible. Music, like food and sex, involves the brain mechanisms of reward and motivation that constitute our survival related systems – we can’t help but move to it, or be moved by it.
The desire to beat in unison with music, or anything for that matter, arises before we are even born. In the last trimester a baby can hear the outside world and pick up musical elements of speech and music, and thus, we are born with an innate capacity to move to the beat of music.
Music therapy saw its conception during the first world war. Wounded soldiers’ physical and mental anguish were seen to be improved by music. Since then, with greater understanding of the brain and the establishment of neuroscience in the 1980s, music's therapeutic effects have earned their rightful place as an established psychological clinical intervention.
Music therapy is generally split in two: receptive (listening) and active (creating). In both cases therapist and client work together to create musical experiences. A session may consist of singing as a way to explore and express emotions, or listening to music as a way of grounding and turning off the cognitive part of the brain.
Compared to talking therapy, music therapy is more of a creative process. Its emphasis on play and creation reflects psychoanalyst Winnicot’s theory of play revealing the true self.
Addressing affective disorders
Music can serve to ease affective disorders in four ways:
Stabilising emotion - It is thought that affective disorders such as Anxiety, Depression and Post-traumatic stress disorder are often routed in the dysfunction of limbic structures (e.g. amygdala). Music holds the incredible capacity to modulate activity of these brain structures that influence emotion, and thus it can act as natural, non-pharmaceutical relief for these disorders.
Placating stress - Music’s anxiolytic (anxiety reducing) effect can also lower stress hormone levels such as cortisol; increase dopamine levels; trigger the brain to release endorphins; and even block pain pathways.
Pre-empting panic - Music can suppress the sympathetic nervous system, which serves a significant role in prompting the 'flight-or-flight' stress response of the body and creating inappropriate feelings of anxiety and panic.
Physiological relief - Music can not only stimulate psychological changes in mood but it can also generate physiological changes in heart rate and breathing. These changes are mirrored by positive changes in mood, particularly generating a sense of calm.
As if that wasn't impressive enough, where the power of music becomes even more extraordinary is in the role it plays in neurological disorders.
Music for management of neurological, or cognitive, conditions:
Alzheimer’s: There is an enduring longevity to music memory that supersedes other forms of memory, thus explaining why music reaches humans in ways that nothing else can. Music has been found to not only trigger temporary memory-relief, but longer-term differences have been observed including positives shifts in behaviour, mood and cognitive function. Even greater still, all of these can continue for hours or even days after they have been initiated by music.
Aphasia: Aphasia is the loss or impairment of language (speaking, writing and reading) through brain injury (e.g. stroke). It is often found that people can sing but not speak as the processing of song and speech occupy different areas of the brain. Melodic Intonation Therapy is particularly useful for aphasic patients as it converts speech into song through singing words in various pitches.
Tourette’s: In Musicophilia, neurologist Oliver Sacks tells several stories about people with Tourette’s who, usually impacted by tics, are suddenly freed from compulsion upon playing music. It is in this way that music can “reconfigure brain activity, and bring calm and focus”.
Parkinson’s: Parkinson’s disease is marked by a long-term degenerative disorder affecting the motor system, and yet, research has shown that the 'organising element' of music can help support and even preserve functional mobility as it works to tackle the underlying neural mechanism of such disorders.
With the availability of all these possibilities, it really does pay to be in tune with the miracles of music and its phenomenal, life-affirming influence. Music really can be transformative, transcendent and therapeutic, if we just open ourselves up to it.