The Healing Effects of Music Therapy

Music is a wonderful and divine blessing that has healed the human mind and soul since the beginning of time. It has no boundaries. It crosses over all cultural, educational, and social economic lines. Music as therapy works because it has a profound impact on our brains and our bodies. Research proves that music therapy is effective because it promotes wellness, helps decrease stress levels, alleviates pain and enhances memory. It also improves communication, promotes physical rehabilitation, and helps human kind express feelings even when all communication is lost. 1

Historical Development of Music as Therapy
According to the American Music Therapy Association, “Music Therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.1

The belief in the curative and healing powers of music dates back to the beginning of history. This early Greek and Chinese cultures, among other cultures of the time, believed in the magical and mystical concepts of illness. Illnesses were a form of punishment or curse passed down by the gods or other diabolical forces. They used music to “intercede in an indirect way with the supernatural realm to petition healing”.2

It was not until the period after World War II that people saw music as an adjunct to standard therapy to hasten the recovery of injured or disabled soldiers in certain parts of the world.3 This heralded the beginning of music being seen as a therapy in medical settings.3

Physiological Response
listening to music with headphonesMusic is known to be one of the most powerful sources of auditory stimulation to the human brain. Research has shown that music precedes language.That is why mothers across cultures have used lullabies to calm crying babies.Our bodies also have a physiological response to music. Music can alter physiological functioning such as heart rate, muscle tone, blood pressure and respiration.5

Music is used as a therapeutic intervention in many settings including ICU’s, geriatric units, hospice facilities, rehabilitation units, and operating rooms to name a few. Music therapy can also be used on many different patient populations including surgical patients, adults, and children. A music therapist can use music to help stimulate the senses of a patient in a coma or use music to help someone relax. Studies conducted on the physiological effects of music have reported that “exposure to music does produce certain neuro-endocrinal changes in the body which can contribute to its healing effect.” 3

When used the right way, music can enhance emotional well-being. Music can trigger emotions to help retrieve memories.Additionally, music helps improve attention span an enhances learning making it not only easy to learn but to recall information later.Based on a recent meta-analysis, music therapy interventions are “highly effective for improving communication, interpersonal skills, personal responsibility, and play in young children with autism.” 7

Music as Brain Stimulant
Music therapists who work with patients with dementia also use music to help their clients reminisce about their lives. People with dementia tend to have difficulty with short term memory and have a hard time connecting with their present day reality. However, while many memories become lost, musical memory is often retained.For people with dementia, music therapy leads to feelings of positive self esteem, increase feelings of competence and independence and diminishes feelings of social isolation.9

Similar studies have also demonstrated that music therapy can decrease symptoms of agitation not only in dementia but also in schizophrenia.10 In a 2012 study, researchers,using music therapy intervention in patients with chronic pain and anxiety and depression concluded that “music can be useful in managing chronic pain, resulting in reduced consumption of pain medication.11

Music has also been shown to enhance the ability of the two hemispheres of the brain to work synergistically by activating biochemical and electrical memory material across the corpus collosum.12 Furthermore, the parasympathetic system prevails over the sympathetic system under the influence of music resulting in a relaxation response, which physiologically manifest itself as a state of muscular relaxation with regular deep breathing and lowered heart rate.12

The utilization of music therapy can be expanded even further. We should continue to learn about its health benefits so we can accurately assess its potential benefit for our patients. Additionally, we can request a referral for music therapy, if appropriate. Finally, we can educate our patients on the value music therapy has on their health, the type of music available, and the benefits from music therapy.

Erika Lugo is a level 4 clinical nurse leader at Tampa General Hospital in Florida. She is an active member of the palliative care team.


1. What is Music Therapy? American Music Therapy Association. Accessed on July 6, 2016.

2.Thaut, M.H. Music as therapy in early history. Progress in Brain Research. 2015; Vol. 217, ISSN 0079-6123.

3. Madhusudan, S.S., Mehnaz, Z., and Rajesh, R. Asian Journal of Psychiatry. 2012; 6 (2013) 193-199

4. Merzenich, K.Top 12 Brain-Based Reasons Why Music as Therapy Works. 2010. Accessed on July 4, 2016.

5. Nayak, S., Wheeler, B.L., Shiflett,S.C., Agostinelli, S. Effect of music therapy on mood and social interaction among individuals with acute traumatic brain injury and stroke. Rehabilitation Psychology. 2000; 45(3), 274-283.

6. Mendes, A. Unlocking people with dementia through the use of music therapy. 2015; vol 17(9), 512-514.

7. Whipple, J. Music Therapy as an effective treatment with Autism Spectrum Disorders in early childhood: A meta-analysis. In P. Kern & M. Humpal (Eds.). Early childhood music therapy and autism spectrum disorders: Developing potential in young children and their families. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2012; 56-76.

8. Jacobsen JH, Stelzer J. Fritz TH, Chetelat G. La Joie R, Turner R. Why Musical Memory can be preserved in advanced Alzeimer’s disease. Brain. 2015; 138 (pt8): 2438-50.

9. Sixsmith, A., & Gibson, G.Music and the wellbeing of people with dementia: Aging and Society. 2007; 27,127-145.

10. Narme, P., Clement, S., Ehrle, N., Schiaratura, L., Vachez, S., Courtaigne, B., Samson, S. Efficacy of musical interventions in dementia: Evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease: JAD. 2014; 38(2), 359-369. Doi:10.3233/JAD-130893. Accessed on July 10, 2016.

11. Guetin, S., Ginies, P., Siou, D.K., Picot, M., Pommie, C., Guldner, E., Touchon, J. The effects of music intervention in the management of chronic pain: a single-blind, randomized, controled trial. Clinical Journal of Pain. 2012; 28(4), 329-337. Doi:10.1097/AJP.0b013e31822be973 (RCT). Accessed on July, 10, 2016.

12. Lee, O.K., Chung, Y.F., Chan, M.F., Chan, W.M. Music and its effect on the physiological responses and anxiety levels of patients receiving mechanical ventilation: a pilot study. Journal of Clinical Nursing. 2005; 14 (5), 609-620.

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