The Science of Music Therapy

The scientific evidence supporting music therapy is one of the largest reasons why this alternative is becoming more accepted as a treatment for a range of disorders and diagnoses. There is no denying the repeated results scientists are achieving in their studies of how patients respond to music when used in a therapeutic way.

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A Brief History of Music Therapy

The science behind music therapy is continuing to solidify its place in the medical field.

The science behind music therapy is continuing to solidify its place in the medical field.

To gain a deeper appreciation for the science of music therapy and how it has grown over the years, you need to first understand where it came from. The history of music and its tie to humanity go back to the beginning of time; as civilizations have evolved so has the use of music in the lives of their people. Ancient civilizations, such as the early Native Americans, used music to communicate with their gods and nature, as well as a healing tool and way to socialize within their communities. It was common for them to come together as a tribe to chant, dance and pray for their sick tribal members.

The idea of music as a healing influence which could affect health and behavior is as least as old as the writings of Aristotle and Plato.”
–American Music Therapy Association

In the United States, music therapy has been a recognized treatment since after the end of World War II. At this time, nurses and doctors saw first-hand how patients responded to music as a way to cope with the physical and emotional trauma caused from their time at war. When the power of music as a healing process was witnessed, there was a push to institute an educational program for people to professionally practice music in a medical setting; this was the birth of music therapy. Now therapists are armed with the latest tools and equipment to help patients with their specific needs and goals.

The Emotional Effects of Music Therapy

Music has a powerful effect on our emotions. It has the ability make people feel happy, sad, energized, excited or relaxed. You don’t need to participate in music therapy to experience these changes in mood and emotion. How often has a song come on the radio that makes you smile, no matter the mood you were in before you heard it? What about a song that reminds you of a person no longer in your life that reminds you of them? The ability to affect your emotions is one reason why music therapy was first used in a medical setting.

Another emotional benefit of music therapy is its ability to help patients cope and accept their diagnoses. Patients can turn to music in different ways to process their emotions, from writing a song that expresses their feelings to listening to artists that they ‘connect’ with. This unique ability provides a plethora of options for music therapists to help their patients deal with and come to terms with the cards laid before them in a positive way.

“Parents have reported that music was the only thing to bring a smile to their child’s lips during their hospital admission.”
-Julie Pollman, Child Life Services teacher/supervisor, Peterson Family Foundation Music Therapy Program at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco

Science has proven that music releases mood enhancing chemicals into our body which music therapists can capitalize on to aid in the medical treatment of patients. Below you can see two of these chemicals, dopamine and endorphins, and how they relate to the emotional wellbeing of people:

  • Dopamine: This hormone is known as the ‘feel good’ chemical and when released it increases the pleasure receptors. It has been proven this chemical is triggered as a reward for meeting a desire of our body such a eating and sleeping, but it also releases while listening to music. It aids in helping us feel good and encourages us to seek out those activities to achieve that feeling.
  • Endorphins: Endorphins are a hormone released into the body that gives a person a happy state of mind and sense of euphoria. It is often related to the “runners high,” but scientists have discovered music also has the ability to create this feeling of happiness through releasing this natural chemical. Endorphins are also linked to being a great pain reliever, but more on that in the next section.

The Physical Effects of Music Therapy

Listening to calming music releases chemicals in the body that can relieve pain, minimize stress and reduce healing time in patients.

Listening to calming music releases chemicals in the body that can relieve pain, minimize stress and reduce healing time in patients.

While everyone has experienced the emotional side of music, not everyone knows that it generates positive physical effects, too. The science of the physical responses to music therapy is a relatively new endeavor and there is still a lot to learn about how the body reacts to it. Recently, studies have shown music therapy aids in helping the body recover quicker and reduces the pain a patient feels through releasing chemicals in the body. This ability to heal faster and reduce pain is especially important for children and infants who may not be able to handle pain medication or communicate clearly where they are feeling discomfort.

Here are three chemicals that are affected by the use of music, especially in a medical setting:

  • Endorphins: As stated above, music can release endorphins into the blood stream as a way to create a happy emotional state, but they are also a strong pain blocker. Endorphins, like pain killers such a morphine, stop pain receptors from transmitting messages to the rest of the body.
  • Immunoglobulin A: This is a cell that seeks and attacks viruses and other threatening agents inside the body. Music has been shown to increase the number of these cells found in the body. The increase in these cells correlates to a strengthened immune system able to fight off potential illnesses which can cause complications in the healing process.
  • Cortisol: This is a stress hormone that is shown to dramatically lower while listening to relaxing music. The lowered levels help ease anxiety and stress that a patient may feel before, during and after a procedure. There is even evidence showing that cortisol can lower these levels better than anti-anxiety medications that are often used in these situations.

Beyond chemicals altering the way we perceive pain and stress, music can change the physical response of our body as well. From our heartbeats to our brain waves, our bodies are naturally hardwired with rhythm. It’s only natural we respond to the beats in music. One of the best ways this can be seen is with our heartbeats and blood pressure.

  • Blood Pressure: Music has shown the ability to lower blood pressure through listening to relaxing rhythms and sounds. Over a period of time, listening to calm music can relax all muscles in the body, including the heart.
  • Heart Rate: Have you ever listened to a song and gotten so amped up that your heart was racing like crazy? It was your body’s response to the music. It has the ability to increase and decrease your heart rate with the tempo of the beat. Faster, higher tempo music raises your heart rate while slower and calmer music helps to decrease your heart rate. Our body naturally responds to these rhythmic cues from the beats of the music.

Putting it All Together

Music therapists are able to use the science of music therapy and how it affects the body emotionally and physically to treat a range of injuries and illnesses. Being able to trigger a feeling of happiness, calm the heart rate and promote relaxation are just a few of the ways this therapy can be used in a medical setting.

 Researchers found that patients who listened to relaxing music while getting an IV inserted reported significantly less pain, and some demonstrated significantly less distress, compared with patients who did not listen to music.”
-Amy Novotny, American Psychological Association: Music as Medicine

Music therapy is truly a miracle therapy. Its ability to change the body’s response without the use of traditional medications is amazing and has been opening the doors for so many people, from fragile premature babies to the elderly struggling with Alzheimer’s and every age in between.

Music therapy provides a unique opportunity to combine traditional medical treatments with less invasive alternatives.

Music therapy provides a unique opportunity to combine traditional medical treatments with less invasive alternatives.

The Peterson Family Foundation has been able to provide the hospitals it supports the opportunity to develop and expand music therapy programs for children and teens. Most recently, the foundation provided the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital’s Peterson Family Foundation Music Therapy Program the ability employ two more outstanding music therapists, allowing more children the opportunity to experience the whole body healing that music therapy offers.

You can help the foundation reach its goal of bringing music therapy to hospitals around the world by making a contribution, where every dollar is used for the most possible good, and by spreading the word of our mission and progress.

About the Peterson Family Foundation

The Peterson Family Foundation was founded in 2003 to enhance, restore and improve the quality of life for all human beings. Our primary mission is to seek out and support experts and institutions dedicated to enhancing and improving the lives of people dealing with illnesses requiring a stay at a medical institution by bringing music therapy to as many hospitals as possible. Learn more at our website or share your story with us.