Music as Medicine By Debbie chen

Throughout the years, music has been known to be used for entertainment, dancing, relaxation, social gatherings, celebration, worship, creating a mood, and many other things. One thing that is not widely known about music is that it is used as a medical tool to improve and maintain the physical, psychological, and social well-being of individuals. This involves patients to listen to music, sing, and play musical instruments. Another way to define it is the term Music Therapy. Music therapy is a type of arts therapy that is facilitated by a trained music therapist who uses music in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, schools, nursing homes, and hospitals to help their patients improve in health.

Before discussing the current uses of music therapy in the 21st century, I would like to talk about music therapy in the past when it wasn't labeled as such.

Music Therapy has been around for years. Many different cultures had their own ideas and views on music. Way back when, was a time when music was believed to have a connection with supernatural forces or gods. It was also believed to be a powerful tool that was used in religious and healing rituals to influence the mental and physical health of others. Music was used to treat illnesses that were caused by sins before and during the treatment. After determining the cause of the illness, they would apply appropriate musical treatment to their patients. Tribal musicians were ranked highly these days because they were healers.

The Egyptians in 5000 BC was a culture that ranked their music healers highly. They used chants as a part of medical practices and referred to music as medicine. The music healers connected with priests and government leaders to heal their people.

The Babylonians in 1850 BC, believe that diseases were connected to religion. It was thought that people were punished with illness for their sins.

In 600 BC, music was prescribed for emotional disturbances in Ancient Greece. Patients in manic states were often instructed to listen to calming music of a flute and those who suffered from depression were prescribed to listen to dulcimer music. There were also healing shrines that housed hymn specialists as well as physicians. Thales, a philosopher from Ancient Greece claims to have used music to cure a plague in Sparta. Aristotle believed that music could be used as an emotional catharsis, while Plato believed music was medicine for the soul. Caelius Aurelianus, a physician, warned against using music carelessly against mental illnesses. There were many different beliefs through the many cultures and ages.

During the Middle Ages (475-1450 AD) the beliefs about illness begin to change. Christianity became a major influence on these beliefs. This was when it was believed that physical illness was not caused by sins or as punishment from the gods, but the role of music was still believed to cure illness and treat respiratory diseases. This was when the role of music was based on the theory of the four humors (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm) which was developed by Hippocrates, meaning he believed that certain human moods, emotions, and behaviors were caused by an excess or lack of body fluids. In 1300-1600 AD, the Renaissance era, people begin using the scientific approach for treatment which was still based on the four humors. They used music to treat melancholy, despair, madness, enhancement of emotional health and help maintain a positive outlook in life. Continuing into the Baroque period, 1580-1750 AD, the four humors were still used, and they started using music to treat depression, expel and prevent disease, and drive away evil spirits.

Music used as medicine or healing did not change much from 5000 BC to 1750 AD. It was mostly the same, except the thought about illness as a sin changed to illness as a lack of or excess body fluids. Music then was used for both physical and mental illness, even though it was strongly focused on physical illnesses, until the baroque period.

Transitioning into the 20th century, people using music to heal others began to be accepted into hospitals as music therapists. During the fallout of WWI and II, musicians traveled to hospitals to play for thousands of veterans who were suffering both physical and emotional trauma, such as wounds from the battlegrounds and post-traumatic stress disorders. Music therapy were unpaid at the time, and it was considered a part-time profession that lacked professional status and worked mostly with psychiatric patients. It wasn't until 1956, when music therapists were registered with the official title of "Music Therapist". From this point on, music was used for therapeutic purposes, controlling of feelings, improving the health of people with Parkinson's disease, and reducing pain and stress.

The goals of music therapy have nothing to do with improving your musical skills. It is about improving the mental and physical health of one's self or of a patient. In one case, music therapists tried matching the music they produced to the rhythm of a baby's heartbeat and breathing with an ocean disc, and a gato box which stimulates a two-tone heartbeat rhythm. This research showed that the two instruments that were played could slow down a baby's heart rate, while singing was the most effective. It was discovered that singing also increased the amount of time a baby would stay quiet yet alert. In regard to music treating pain and reducing stress, it was found that listening to music was more effective than prescription drugs to reduce anxiety before a surgery. Apparently, it was discovered that listening to and playing music increases the body's production of antibodies and natural killer cells. Therapeutic contribution of music is the vibrations of sounds. At the University of Toronto, they are exploring how vibrations can help ease the symptoms of Parkinson's disease, fibromyalgia, and depression. A vibroacoustic therapy session has patients lie down on a mat, bed, or chair embedded with speakers that transmits vibrations at computer-generated frequencies that is heard and felt. This helped patients with Parkinson's disease improve in being less rigid, improve in walking speed, having larger steps as well as reduction in tremors. They are currently examining a disorientation of rhythmic brain activity called thalamocortical dysrhythmia, which involves the thalamus and the outer cortex that plays a role in several medical conditions. So far, they have hope in the case study with a patient who, after being stimulated by 40-hertz of sound for 30 minutes, three times a week for four weeks, she could recall the names of her grandchildren easier, after being diagnosed with mild Alzheimer's disease.

Now that we know what is happening in the present day, what about the future? Music Therapy has progressed and evolved beginning from 5000 BC until today (2017). So, what will happen in ten, twenty five, or fifty years or so? Well, studies show that through the evolution of Neurological Music Therapy (NMT) the therapeutic application of musical components to address cognitive sensory and motor dysfunctions, can help patients affected by stroke, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, dementia, traumatic brain injury and multiple sclerosis. This is all done with an actual therapist to guide the patient. Unfortunately, approximately 30% of people who suffer from a stroke do not heal by the time their insurance benefit runs out. It may be possible that there will be a lower costing NMT to help patients without needing to afford an actual therapist in the future. A company called MedRhythms is currently building a digital platform that will hopefully help people in need for a lower cost, in an efficient way. This software platform is a machine with learning capabilities that will hopefully be able to record data from movement with sensors, that will use music to respond in real time to help aid patients.

I believe that there are a lot of answers in the past that will help create a better future. That is possibly why people always say to never forget the past or we will keep repeating our mistakes. On the other hand, if we remembered what was done well in the past, we could use that to build upon it. For example, music therapists in the past were the tribal musicians and they were ranked highly because they were healers. We should not take music therapy lightly because it has proven its worth in helping patients speak words when speech itself has failed. An example would be Congresswomen Gabby Giffords. After taking a bullet to the brain, she was left in critical condition. After losing the ability to speak due to the damage that was done to the language pathways in her brain's left hemisphere, she was able to sing what she wanted to say by "layering words on top of melody and rhythm", before she could even speak. She train her brain to use a less-traveled pathway to the same output. Meaghan Morrow, a music therapist and certified brain injury specialist, helped Giffords relearn how to speak by helping her pave a new pathway around the damaged areas which is called neuroplasticity.

On the other hand, a musician who was caught between wanting to pursue music or becoming a doctor, eventually figured out that he could do both, and with a bow in his hand and a sense of social justice in his heart, he did both. This musician's name is Robert Gupta, a violinist who joined the LA Philharmonic at the age of 19. Throughout his lifetime, he had met another musician, Nathaniel Ayers who was a double bassist at Julliard who suffered from psychotic episodes. Eventually he ended up homeless on the streets of Skid Row in Los Angeles. Gupta became friends, as well as a violin teacher to Ayers, and many times, he witnessed how music could help Ayers come back from his darkest moments and life. Gupta recalls "playing for Nathaniel, the music took on a deeper meaning, because now it was about communication, a communication where words failed, a communication of a message that went deeper than words, that registered at a fundamentally primal level." This just shows that healing with music works its way from the inside out. On the inside, you cannot see what is wrong, you cannot just put a band-aid on it, and hope it heals over time. It is both a physical and mental pain that needs to be healed and music can help guide healing within.

Although I'm not sure whether we can use music therapy to cure hangovers like they attempted in Ancient Greece, or if it can dis-spell evil spirits, but in the past music therapists were important because they were able to help cure people. Maybe... just maybe, in the future, we will find out weather or not we can cure a hangover with music, or different ways music will be able to cure different physical and mental ailments for patients, like the stories of Meaghan Morrow and Robert Gupta.

For the future, I imagine a larger appreciation and recognition to music therapists just like they were during and before the middle ages. I also imagine more spaces and jobs for music therapists to work with their patients, whether it's in hospitals, music learning centers, or other various venues. Maybe even buildings and work space dedicated to this craft. I imagine more people becoming educated on what music therapists are, what they do and why they do it. This was not just something that came out of no where, it dates back hundreds of years of practice in different cultures and eras. I can envision, but also hope that music therapy becomes one of the main practices in therapy, because like many have said before, music speaks when words do not.


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Moisse, Katie, Bob Woodruff, James Hill, and Lana Zak. "Gabby Giffords: Finding Words Through Song." ABC News. ABC News Network, 14 Nov. 2011. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

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Strong, Rebecca. "Music as Medicine: Why a New Kind of Neuro-Rehab Is Taking Off." The Huffington Post., 31 May 2016. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

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