The healing power of music
From anxiety to dementia, brain injuries and cancer, music has a role to play in managing or even recovering from illness.
We all know that music is special – it can push us to run faster, work smarter, completely transcend our surroundings, and inspire us in all kinds of ways. Could it even have the power to heal?
From anxiety to dementia, brain injuries and cancer, music has a role to play in managing or even recovering from illness. Since Ancient Greece, philosophers believed in music’s healing effect for both the body and soul. Musical chanting has been an integral part of Native American healing ceremonies for thousands of years. Ottoman Empire mental illnesses were often treated with music. And a modern understanding of music therapy has been practiced since the mid 20th Century, when doctors observed the positive effect of music on veterans of World War II.
Recovering from brain injuries
Music is processed in more than one part of the brain. If a traumatic injury damages the parts of the brain that process speech, it can be possible to recover some aspects of speech by making use of other areas of the brain. Someone recovering from an accident or stroke that has damaged the left-brain region responsible for speech could work with music therapists to utilise the right side of the brain, where the act of singing is processed to re-build connections.
The patient can work around the injury to the left side of their brain by first singing their thoughts and then gradually dropping the melody to ease back into speaking patterns. This amazing technique was used by former U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords to testify before a Congressional committee two years after a gunshot wound to her brain destroyed her ability to speak.
Manage your anxiety
Whether it’s Brexit, Covid or climate change that’s keeping you up at night, a massive 1 in 6 of us has suffered anxiety in the last year.
Music is more effective at combating stress and anxiety than conventional anti-anxiety medication.
Music has a special role to play in managing this difficult condition. A study published in Trends in Cognitive Science found that music is more effective at combating stress and anxiety than conventional anti-anxiety medication.
The study looked at patients about to undergo surgery, giving them either anti-anxiety medication, or headphones filled with music. The participants with music had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, showing they had been less anxious during the day. Music can be a great mood regulator, harnessed to promote psychological as well as physical health.
A space of total calm
Brian Eno, revered producer and godfather of ambient experimentation, puts his faith in music to create a space of total calm and healing. His long-standing interest in functional music manifested in his 2013 project with orthopaedic surgeon Robin Turner. Together, they created a hospital quiet room where patients can ‘think, take stock or simply relax’ while experiencing music by Eno. The work is a progression from Eno’s audiovisual installation at Brighton Festival in 2010, 77 Million Paintings, which caught Turner’s eye and sparked the idea of collaboration.
The calming, meditative space is used to examine physiological changes in patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy- their pulse, blood pressure, and anxiety, which all affect the healing process and overall health and wellbeing. Therapeutic listening can also reduce nausea and vomiting for patients receiving chemotherapy.
Based in Montefiore hospital in Hove, East Sussex, Eno hopes this project will inspire others, becoming a more accessible and widespread option for more patients: ‘I think it is helpful to people, I really think it’s useful. And the good news is it isn’t expensive or requires sophisticated technology.’ Anecdotal evidence so far has been very positive. It might take a while before it’s prescribed through the NHS, but let’s keep our fingers crossed.
Finding a way through Dementia
As anyone who experiences vivid flashbacks of nostalgia when hearing a particular Top 40 hit from school disco days, music is a potent route to connect with our former selves. In the case of dementia sufferers, music can be transformational and a great comfort.
As the illness advances and damage caused to the brain by dementia increases, language is stripped away. The patient is effectively locked inside their head, unable to make sense of the outside world, yet music retains a powerful ability to reach them: we never lose our innate understanding of music, similar to that of babies before they acquire language.
Music can be a heartfelt way to interact once language has gone. To be able to bring a loved one joy in such difficult circumstances is infinitely precious. People with dementia often become depressed and agitated, but music offers a way to relate to others, share pleasure, recall memories and improve physical coordination.
Professor Helen Odell-Miller, director of the Cambridge Institute for Music Therapy Research at Anglia Ruskin University, believes music can improve the emotional state of people with dementia, and create a connection between carer and patient. She recommends staff in care homes embed music into daily care to promote wide ranging benefits. New research shows that only 16% of people with dementia frequently engage with music currently.
While music may not be a wonder-cure, it has an undeniable ability to improve certain symptoms, assist healing and improve overall quality of life in many different medical scenarios. It’s exciting to see where this relatively new research will lead us while we seek to better understand the incredible power of music.