Most people probably don’t think of music as medicine, but sometimes the right song can be just what the doctor ordered. I’m a great believer that our traditional definition of a prescription is grossly outdated. Not every cure comes in the form of a pill in an amber bottle that you pick up at the pharmacy. Medicine is much more than that. From my perspective…food, exercise, movement, dance, listening to a symphony or a jam session with friends can be as therapeutic as any prescription a physician can write.
I’ve experienced the benefits of “music therapy” first hand and I’ve seen study after study that supports the idea that music can be medicinal. With that in mind, I’d like to share a few ways you might harness its beneficial properties.
Music is medicine
It’s easy to appreciate that music can be relaxing and lift your spirit? But what about the notion that sound can heal? As you might imagine, rituals involving dance, chants, and hymns have been used by cultures around the world since the beginning of antiquity. Native Americans, ancient Greeks, and mystics from virtually every religious tradition have incorporated song into their healing arts.
Modern scientific tools (like brain imaging techniques) now show that this approach has real merit. Thanks to devices like functional MRIs, we can see that music has a deep impact on brainwave activity, which means that it can profoundly influence both psychological and physical well-being.
Here’s a short list of ways that listening to music can affect your health:
- Studies show that relaxing music can lower both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. This is great news and a welcome prescription for people with hypertension.
- Music therapy has shown positive results in the treatment of dementia patients. Some scientists hypothesize that vocal music (in particular) can stimulate certain regions in the brain, leading to a slowdown in neurodegeneration.
- You may have heard about the Mozart Effect, the phenomenon where listening to classical music enhances mathematical aptitude. Well, there are also studies indicating that the certain kinds of music can reduce student anxiety, which has the effects of boosting reading comprehension and other forms of learning too.
- Scientists are finding that music can stimulate both hemispheres of the brain in ways that help organize and coordinate the body’s sensory, perceptual and motor skills. Researchers believe this points the way to musical therapies that will help children with autism.
- Are you having trouble sleeping? Recent findings indicate that listening to slow and meditative music can help alleviate insomnia.
- The link between mood and music is undeniable. Scientists have found that music stimulates the production of feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and endorphins. Music can be the perfect prescription for people suffering from conditions like anxiety, and depression.
The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, believed that sacred music could purge the body of negative emotions, which could lead to a medical catharsis. A more modern musician/thinker (by the name of Jimi Hendrix) hoped that someday sound waves would be used to dissolve tumors.
We are not quite there yet. It would be going too far to suggest that music alone can cure all ills. But Aristotle and Hendrix were onto something. A meta-analysis of over 1600 scientific studies showed that patient-selected music can lower blood pressure. Similar findings indicate that music can have a beneficial effect on health measures like blood glucose levels and the stress hormone cortisol.
It’s not just listening to music that can do you good. I find that strumming my six string in an impromptu jam session around a firepit can be the perfect tonic to both de-stress and rejuvenate my mind and body. Medicine comes in many forms. A melody that makes you want to get up and dance the night away with friends and family can be as therapeutic as any pill…and a lot more fun.
On that note, take good care.
Dr. Joshua Levitt