By Keasi Smith
American philosopher, psychologist and physician William James once said, “I don’t sing because I’m happy; I’m happy because I sing.” A man before his time, he already knew what scientists have since proven: music can heal us. Not only that but a speedy tempo can motivate you to run faster, a funky rhythm can inspire your hips to sway and particular melodies can bring us the tears. We have all experienced the mysterious power music can have on our emotions and behavior, but the science of music and music therapy as a disciple didn’t really form till after WWI and WWII when hospitals began to see the positive effects volunteer musicians had on veterans suffering from the traumas of war. Over the decades studies have unveiled the effects music has on our brain and in turn uncovered an effective tool for addressing physical, emotional and cognitive needs of individuals.
Possibly the most remarkable effects of music therapy can be seen in patients suffering from dementia. Nursing homes from across the country have seen the benefits of inviting musicians to come play at their facility and as the 2014 documentary “Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory” demonstrates, providing each patient with an iPod can do wonders for facilitating movement and promoting engagement even in the most docile individuals. This is because a person’s ability to engage in music remains intact late into the disease process as our brain requires little to no mental or cognitive functions to enjoy a tune. Music selections from the individual’s young adult years—18 to 25—have been proven to have the strongest responses and because memories are so spread throughout the neurological pathways, music has the amazing ability to evoke powerful memories in patients who have lost their identity to dementia.
Music therapy techniques are also used in hospice care, including at Tallahassee’s very own Big Bend Hospice, where music therapy is used to increase relaxation, give spiritual comfort and provide an outlet for self-expression and communication. Techniques vary but include learning how to play the piano to improve fine motor skills or using music instruments to cope with emotions. And because music therapy comes with no side effects and is so non-invasive, this approach has become a wildly popular tool to help increase the quality of life for those suffering due to a terminal illness. It can also be extremely helpful to the patient’s families, providing support and comfort for them throughout their hospice journey alongside with their loved one.
The healing benefits of music span people of all ages, including children with autism. A 2012 study shared in the Pertanika Journal found that children over a ten-month period found weekly music therapy sessions improved inattentive behaviors and additional studies have shown that childhood music lessons serve extreme cognitive benefits such as decreased stress, depression, and addictive behavior. For those suffering from insomnia, the Institute of Behavior Sciences in Hungary conducted a study in 2015 which found music to be an effective tool for improving sleep quality in adults. Hospitals continue to utilize music therapy to heal, alleviate pain and counteract apprehension and fear, which all can lessen the amount of pain medications prescribed.
Still, you don’t have to be suffering from any of the above ailments to take advantage of the healing benefits of music. After all, music predates recorded history and has been used by cultures all over the world for religious, spiritual and communicates purposes. We are hardwired to enjoy music. Listening to your iPod can be considered preventative medicine as music gets your good genes moving and slows down genes that cause brain degeneration, meaning that listening to music can actually project your brain from while simultaneously counteracting effects of chronic stress, a contributing factor to illnesses and disease. So next time you’re enjoying your favorite song, remember that that magic you’re feeling is actually the beauty of neurotransmitters and chemicals in your brain, healing you from the inside out. So, turn up the volume.