By Barbara Sternberg, Ph.D.
Music has long been recognized as an effective therapy for emotional disorders. But the idea of using music to treat physical ailments is relatively new. The past several years have seen an explosion of research on the uses and benefits of music for both mental and physical health. In a meta-analysis of 400 studies, it was found that music improves the body’s immune-system function and reduces stress. In reducing anxiety prior to surgery, listening to music was also found to be more effective than prescription drugs. In addition, listening to and playing music increased the body’s production of the antibody immunoglobulin-A and natural killer cells. Music also reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
A recent study on the link between music and stress found that music can help calm pediatric emergency-room patients. In a trial with children ages three to 11, University of Alberta researchers found that young patients who listened to relaxing music while having an IV inserted reported significantly less pain, and some showed less distress compared to patients who did not listen to music. Also, for the music-listening group, more than two-thirds of the healthcare providers reported that the IVs were very easy to administer.
Music is also helpful in reducing pain among adult patients as well. In one study, patients in palliative care who participated in live-music therapy sessions reported relief from persistent pain. Music therapists worked closely with the patients to tailor the intervention. Patients sang, played instruments, discussed lyrics, and wrote songs.
Another study evaluated the analgesic effects of music in patients with fibromyalgia pain. Fibromyalgia patients were exposed either to relaxing, pleasant music which they had chosen, or to a control auditory condition (white noise). They rated their pain level, and their functional mobility was evaluated using a standardized measure.
Functional mobility was found to be superior in the patients exposed to music compared to the controls.
In addition, music has been shown to enhance certain quality of life aspects among older adults. A study evaluated the impact of piano training on cognitive function, mood, and quality of life in older adults. Thirteen participants received piano lessons and practiced daily for four months and were compared to an age-matched control group of 16 who participated in other forms of leisure activities such as physical exercise, computer lessons, or painting lessons. In terms of executive function, inhibitory control, and divided attention, significant differences were found for the group that received piano-training. Piano lessons also decreased depression, induced positive mood states, and improved the psychological and physical quality of life of the elderly participants. The researchers concluded that playing piano and learning to read music can be a useful intervention in older adults to promote cognitive reserve and improve subjective well-being.
There is growing evidence that music may be useful in medicine – in areas including reducing stress and pain and improving mood and cognitive function. On word fluency, working memory, and recognition memory, other studies have examined the effects of listening to music. These studies also showed enhanced performance in these cognitive abilities in older adults.