Music has charms to soothe a savage breast, soften rocks or bend a knotted oak, English playwright William Congreve famously wrote. But it also has superpowers that can improve your family's health.
Listening to music can reduce pain, help patients with dementia recover memories, and help stroke victims learn to walk again. Making music can lower blood pressure and alleviate stress. Accumulating evidence of music's power to improve health outcomes has spurred hospitals and other medical facilities to employ musicians and music therapists, turning guitars and xylophones into medical equipment.
Massachusetts General, the largest hospital in Boston, employs four music therapists to work with patients and recruits professional musicians for live performances in waiting rooms and lobbies. Its environmental music program has been enthusiastically received by employees and families who say encountering live music in a hospital instantly improves the experience, said Lorrie Kubicek, a board-certified music therapist at the hospital.
“Most people who pass through an area where there is a live musician playing find it a relaxing and calming experience,” she said.
Kubicek, who is one of 6,500 certified music therapists in the U.S., started music therapy at Massachusetts General as a pilot program in 2003. She began with a grant for three hours a week, but in the ensuing decade, the overwhelming positive response, and new research about the efficacy of music in medical settings led to the hospital having four music therapists on staff, with the costs of the program covered by donations.
Kubicek, a 42-year-old who grew up in Wisconsin, strolls the halls of the hospital with a guitar on her back, pulling a rolling crate full of small instruments like drums, shakers and bells. She works primarily with children battling cancer.
“I use instruments and music to help them feel in control, distract them from pain, and give them a place to express themselves,” she said. “I’ve heard parents say, ‘Wow, that’s the first time I’ve seen my child smile since she came in the hospital.’”
“The beautiful thing about music therapy as an intervention in hospital settings is that a person can participate regardless of musical skill, age, cognitive ability or possible language barrier," she said.
Other hospitals have come to the same conclusion. According to The George Center for Music Therapy in Atlanta, 90 percent of children's hospitals on U.S. News & World Report's honor roll offer some form of music therapy.
What the research says
While Kubicek’s work with pediatric cancer patients can help distract them from pain, there is a growing body of evidence around the world suggesting the benefits of music are real and not a placebo effect.
It includes a Pennsylvania wellness center study that suggests playing an instrument for pleasure is more effective than quiet reading for stress reduction and can help people with cardiovascular disease. Research from Queen Mary University in London concludes that listening to music before, during and after surgery reduces pain in procedures ranging from a colonoscopy to open-heart surgery, and another, in Montreal, says music may be better than prescription medicine in treating some conditions.
“Drumming, or singing the blues, can change the pain experience without any medication at all. And when you couple that with medicine, someone’s perceived pain can go from a 10 to a zero,” said Joanne V. Loewy, director of The Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York City, and an associate professor at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
In some cases, the type of music matters. A study at Oxford University, released in 2015, found that listening to classical music can lower blood pressure, while rock music can increase the heart rate.
With other kinds of therapies, however, it's the patient's preference that matters most in generating a positive outcome, said Concetta M. Tomaino, executive director of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, of Bronx, New York.
"The music is as varied as the goals," she said.
How it works
Former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords' goal was to recover from catastrophic injuries she suffered in a 2011 shooting. She credits music therapy with helping her relearn how to walk and talk after being shot in the head.
"Music therapy was so important in the early stages of my recovery because it can help retrain different parts of your brain to form language centers in areas where they weren't before you were injured," Giffords told PEOPLE magazine last year.
Music improves health outcomes because of the way the brain processes the complexities of sound, rhythm and vibration, Tomaino, of The Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, said.
“These components excite and engage networks in the brain into action, and by doing so, enable individuals who seem to have lost function actually regain it,” she said.
“In 1994, there was no science that explained the phenomena, but the field of cognitive neuroscience is shedding amazing light into how patterns of rhythm, tone and pitch engage the brain in specific ways.”
The benefits can be transient and lasting, she said. For example, when music is used to help a person with Parkinson’s disease walk, it is an aid that must be reused, like a cane or prosthetic, she said.
In treatment of dementia, however, music therapy used consistently can result in improvements in attention, recognition and word retrieval.
“Maybe not at the end stage, but at mid-stage or early on, using music and rhythm will help people remember things,” Tomaino said.
She noted, however, that because the field of music therapy is relatively new, treatments are not always covered by medical insurance. Coverage varies by company and state, and people should look into what their policies offer, and if the company doesn't cover music therapy, urge that they do, she said.
Practitioners of alternative medicine propose that not just music, but variations of sound can heal the mind and body as well. Advocates of "sound healing" claim that listening to sounds that stimulate the mind, like binaural beats, can heal illness and improve overall health. YouTube and other Internet sites feature links to sounds that are said to cure colds and the flu, and enhance the immune system.
While there is some research that seems to support the benefits of sound therapies, it's music that's on the forefront of new ways to practice medicine.
And it's not just hospital patients or people with diagnosed conditions who can benefit from purposefully adding music to their days. Music can help anyone to reduce stress, and it encourages people to exercise.
"It can help you feel the urge to move, and can keep you engaged in movement for a longer period of time," Tomaino said. "People who exercise with music tend to do it for a longer period of time and have more intensive engagement."
Music can also offer social engagement that benefits psychological health, such as singing in a chorus or playing an instrument in a musical group, Tomaino said.
"Music benefits your overall health. It offers lots of ways of enhancing our wellness and wholeness," she said.