Music to my Ears

“Nothing wrong with this old world, some little song won’t cure. . .whether you’re rich or poor. . .of this little thought I’m sure . . .”(Let’s Sing Again, Gus Kahn 1936)

Have you ever lost yourself in music? There are occasions when melodies can mimic or moderate our moods. Boisterous, busy tunes can energize us; quiet lyrical music can relax us. And with knowledge of the effect music can have on the psyche, physiology, and temperament, a whole discipline has been created in the 20th century.

According to the American Music Therapy Association, music therapy is “the prescribed use of music by a qualified person to effect positive changes in the psychological, physical, cognitive, or social functioning of individuals with health or educational problems.” There is a national certification examination which a music therapist must pass following his or her completion of approved college curricula which include an internship. Obviously, the idea that music can soothe and heal individuals is not new. But the defined and regulated modern discipline of music therapy was spawned by the post World War I and World War II participation of community musicians in the therapies of traumatized Veterans hospital patients. Observing the emotional and physical responses of the patients, hospital physicians and staff requested that hired positions be created for musicians, and so the therapeutic discipline was born. The first music therapy degree program in the world was founded at the University of Michigan in 1944; since then over 70 colleges have followed suit.

There is no set formula for the therapy and no specific styles of music are uniformly used. Music therapists use their training to assess the emotional, physical, and cognitive functioning of each patient and then design a specific treatment plan. In some cases (for example nursing homes, drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, and adult and child day care centers) group therapies are often developed as well–since social interaction and emotional expression can be positively affected in multiple people simultaneously. Children, adolescents, and adults of all ages benefit from music therapy. . .again, because therapies are created which have age-specific appeal and relevance.

So, what are some specific conditions or settings in which music therapy is useful? It is instrumental in pain control; both acute and chronic pain can be decreased with music therapy–often in conjunction with anesthesia or pain medications. Music is useful in calming anxious patients, in elevating moods of depressed patients, in promoting rehabilitative movement in patients recovering from strokes, surgical procedures, and heart attacks. It is being used successfully in elderly patients to increase and/or maintain levels of physical, mental and social functioning. Think how certain music and songs can regenerate wonderful memories of pivotal events and times in your life. Then extrapolate these effects to an elderly individual who has failing vision, limited mobility, and restricted social connections. The improvement in their quality of life and overall mood can be dramatic. Labor and delivery areas are utilizing music therapy both for it’s pain-relieving and relaxation benefits–a powerful duo in this setting! As an adjunctive therapy in patients with cancer and some immune-mediated illness such as AIDS, music therapy may actually play a role in improving immune function by effectively decreasing whole body stress in a sustained manner.

Many of you who come to my office as patients have commented about the relaxing quality of my waiting room–and that’s no accident. The music is a varying montage of light classics, mellow jazz, and quiet standards. My intent is to provide an atmosphere of peace–a respite from the hectic world. I want the gurgle of the fountain, the live plants, the natural light in open space, and the music to provide a healing atmosphere. At least, on occasion, this intent is accomplished.

Just think how music affects you individually. Add to this phenomenon aspects of the disciplines of psychology, occupational therapy, and social work, and you’ll see how powerful music therapy can be. Therapists have already demonstrated the benefits in a variety of clinical settings, and research continues. Studies are currently in progress to evaluate the results in physical rehabilitation, Alzheimer’s disease and psychoneuroimmunology. Stay tuned. . . In the meantime, “I’ll get along as long as a song is strong in my soul–” (Without a Song, Rose and Eliscu, 1929)

Stephen L. Hines, M.D.
July 2000