We all know that dopamine rush we get when listening to our favourite song. While music often evokes emotions, it can also stimulate multiple parts of the brain. This has led to music becoming a useful therapeutic tool. At face value, music therapy may seem like a new age hippy fad. However, it allegedly dates back to the beginning of human civilisation itself; some historians argue that it existed in Paleolithic times or in ancient civilisations such as Egypt and Rome. Aristotle believed in music’s healing power, saying that flute music purify the soul.

The first known piece of academic literature on music therapy dates back to 1789 – an article named ‘Music Physically Considered’ by Columbian Magazine in Philadelphia. It was established as a profession then after the two world wars to help veterans overcome emotional and physical traumas. Nomad music groups would travel around from hospital to hospital playing for them. By 1946, training courses were offered in music therapy and four years later the National Association for Music Therapy was founded in New York.

Music can enkindle positive emotions stimulating reward centres in the brain. It can alleviate symptoms from illnesses/problems such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, insomnia and dementia. Depending on its type, music can train the body to calm/accelerate. Broadly speaking there are two types of music which can be used: sedative and stimulative. Sedative music may help lower anxiety, pain and stress. Stimulative music can lead to greater psychological and physical motivation. Music can influence changes in heart activity, blood pressure and breathing There is no specific style of music used and the patient/client does not need to have any musical ability.

When selecting music, therapists often base their choices on the Iso-principle which asserts that music is more likely to have influence if it correlates with the individual’s current condition. They therefore try and ensure the lyrics and melody of the selected piece of music correspond with the mood and psychological state of the patient. Songwriting is regularly used and may involve writing original songs or modifying existing ones with the latter being a more structured approach to writing.

A person who is experiencing communication difficulties due to a stroke may improve their speech production and fluency by singing words or short phrases set to a melody. Those with weakened motor skills might ameliorate their condition by tapping rhythms on drum pads or playing simple melodies on a piano. Listening to a metronome can help a person coordinate, initiate and time their movements. Furthermore, music is sometimes played to prematurely born babies in order to emulate the sound of the mother’s heartbeat and the flowing of fluids inside the womb.

Listening to music is one method of tackling cognition difficulties linked with Alzheimer’s. There has been plenty of evidence of dementia sufferers suddenly ‘coming back to life’ after hearing a familiar song. According to some studies, music activates the same brain structures that are damaged in Alzheimer’s; it has a special power in evoking memories. Listening to music can also increase the functioning of the default mode network – a wide-ranging network of brain regions that deal with introspection, memory, fantasy or creative thinking. The connections in this network  are exacerbated with Alzheimer’s so music can act as a remedy to this deterioration.

The legendary British neurologist Oliver Sacks had a strong belief in the therapeutic force of music. While he was researching patients who survived the 1920s pandemic of encephalitis lethargica (a disease known as sleepy-sickness which left many people speechless and/or motionless), he noted how music “might animate the patients and allow them to dance, even though they could not walk, or to sing even though they could not speak”. Sacks went on to the write a book called Musicophilia in 2007, which detailed the relationship between music and the brain.

As exam season kicks in, many of us will indubitably turn to music as a form of refuge from the deluge of stress. But even when we experience more severe problems in later life, it can come to our aid and that is testament to the power of the medium itself.

Adam Bielenberg – Music Editor