Music therapy: the ancient approach to treating several illnesses that got a 21st century revamp

15 December, 2018
Music therapy: the ancient approach to treating several illnesses that got a 21st century revamp

Music has never been such an intrinsic part of our daily lives as it is today. We grew up with easy access to any kind of music we wanted, whether by turning a nob on our old transistor radios while ‘aiming’ the antennas like an air traffic controller, or by streaming it from a cloud while jogging on a treadmill. As a result, most of us kind of take music for granted, and don’t give it the value and respect it deserves.

Besides being free entertainment at our fingertips, music also possesses a therapeutic side not everyone is aware of. There has been evidence of music showing results in improving the quality of life of people with heart disease, AVC, an assortment of neurological disorders, and even autism.

But isn’t it just a new age fad?

Not quite. Lahun Papyri - a collection of ancient Egyptian texts – is the first written record of music being widely used in ancient Egypt for medicinal purposes.

David – the fella who fought the giant Goliath in the Bible- allegedly played the harp to soothe a nobleman’s spirits (Samuel, chapter 16, verse 23). 

Ancient Greeks were no strangers to music therapy either. Plato, Hippocrates, and Aristotle defended music as a sort of psychotherapy capable of affecting emotions and influencing one’s character.

The first time the therapeutic potential of music was recognized and officialized in more modern times was in the 9th century. Much later, on the 17th century, Robert Burton – an English scholar and vicar from the university of Oxford – published the book ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’ in which, among other things, he defended music and dance were instrumental in the treatment of mental illnesses such as melancholy.

Contemporary music therapy has its origins in American World War II hospitals, where it was first used in a systematic and studied manner to improve patients’ recovery, especially those with what is now called PTSD.

So, as we can see, music therapy is definitely not a new age, millennial, and fleeing fad, it is an ancient form of alternative medicine that is well worth our while.

Modern music therapy and what it does to our brains

The World Music Therapy Federation defines music therapy as follows: ‘Music therapy aims at developing potentials and restoring the individual’s functions so that they can achieve better intra and interpersonal integration and, consequently, a better quality of life.’

When used correctly, music therapy affects different areas of the brain in different ways.

The corpus callosum – the bridge that connects the two sides of the brain – transfers information between both hemispheres much more actively when under the influence of music. The visual cortex is also surprisingly activated while we listen to music, which might explain why we often visualize scenes and events when we listen to music that moves us.

The prefrontal cortex – responsible for the planning of complex behaviors and thoughts, expression of personality, decision making, and modulation of social behavior – is one of the areas of the brain that is most greatly affected by music. The link between the prefrontal cortex and a person’s personality lead scientists and researchers to say that it is possible to speculate - to a certain degree of scientific support - that music can indeed influence one’s personality.

The cerebellum and the hippocampus – balance and movement, memory and limbic system respectively – are also somewhat activated more significantly when under the influence of a good tune. It explains why we have the urge to move in synchrony with music, as well as why long-gone memories can be awakened when we hear certain songs.

But the trophy for most broadly musically-influenced part of our brain goes to…the Amygdala! The amygdala is a set of neurons that form the temporal poles of the cerebral hemispheres. This region of the brain is part of the limbic system and is an important regulator of sexual behavior, aggressiveness, emotional responses, and reactivity to biological stimuli.

Music therapy and how it can help us

It is quite difficult to explain how a session of music therapy works in the brain and results in a patient’s recovery. Patients can participate passively (simply listening) or actively, by playing an instrument and dancing. It is also possible to use music therapy in groups, often by making music and dancing together.

More specifically, music therapy can help with the following health issues:

Heart diseases can be greatly improved by simply listening to music, according to a study by the Cochrane Library and the World Health Organization. According to this study, heart rates, respiratory rates, blood pressure, and stress levels were lowered in patients with coronary artery disease by the sheer act of listening to music.

Neurological disorders such as anxiety and isolation are among the most effectively treated psychological pathologies when it comes to music therapy. However, it was only in the 1980s that empirical evidence based on research and experiments in this field began to appear.

AVC patients can benefit from having their emotions aroused and social interactions stimulated when undergoing music therapy.

Amnesia, Dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other neurodegenerative diseases find a therapeutic pathway through music therapy. When listening to music, a dementia patient’s brain can sort of awake by having various synapses stimulated at the same time. Something similar to this can be seen in the movie Awakenings with Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, in which a doctor uses an experimental drug and the help of music to ‘awake’ catatonic patients he believed suffered from advanced Alzheimer’s.

Music being used for therapeutic means can also help patients with a stammer and other speech impediments. According to the Stuttering Foundation, there is now evidence that the brain functions differently when we speak and when we sing, in no small part due to word retrieval and how the brain processes lexicon. This was seen in part on the movie ‘The King’s Speech”, in which part of the treatment involved singing.

As we can all see, music therapy is an ancient way of treating an assortment of illnesses that has been revamped in a more modern form of alternative therapy. Perhaps AIVA – as we saw on a different article – will be used someday to write personalized music for patients in recovery, which in turn would help them recover even better and faster. Fingers crossed. 

person_outline Author

Dennis Tura
Dennis Tura

Dennis Tura is a language teacher, author, and proprietor of his own Startup since 2005. Shortly after endeavouring on the private language tutoring market, he realised social media would be key to reach customers far and wide, and therefore based most of his advertising on these outlets. In 2012, he took a step even further and began providing courses online, reaching customers worldwide and once again making using of social media as an optimal channel for advertising.

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