Most people know that their moods can be affected by music, and it’s not uncommon for people to cue up music in response to that whether it’s something sad for cathartic purposes, something happy to cheer one up or something energetic to get the blood pumping for exercise. There is increasing evidence, however, that music affects not just our emotions but can heal us physically. Injuries to the brain as well as diseases like Parkinson’s and conditions like dyslexia have all shown improvement with music therapy.
The Power of Speech
The family of Gabrielle Giffords, the congresswoman who was shot in the head in 2011, credit music therapy as helping her learn to speak again. Researchers have found that a type of singing similar to Gregorian chants is helpful in teaching stroke patients to speak again. It seems that music bypasses the part of the brain damaged by the stroke and engages a different part of the brain also available for speech.
Helping Dementia Patients
While no course of treatment has been found as yet that stops the memory loss caused by Alzheimer’s and other diseases, music has been found to soothe Alzheimer’s patients who can sing songs from their past with total recall. Some research has even linked music therapy to improvements in mood and memory.
Just as a certain type of singing helps the brain remap pathways to speech, music seems to do something similar for people suffering with degenerative muscular diseases like Parkinson’s and muscular dystrophy. Just as music can make people move in a jaunty way, it can help train the muscles to remember that movement and walk steadily. Researchers have noticed that the effect is both immediate and better than any medication currently used in treating Parkinson’s patients. It’s believed that the mechanism at work may be similar to that which makes it possible for stutterers to sing without stuttering. The predictability of the beats gives both stutterers and people with degenerative muscle diseases a fluency their body has forgotten how to produce on its own.
Music therapy has been similarly helpful in retraining veterans who have lost limbs to learn how to use new prosthetics.
Reading and Concentration
Music instruction has been shown to have a significant effect on dyslexic readers. People with dyslexia often have trouble processing instructions and tuning out distracting sounds, but with music therapy, they show significant improvement.
Working With Premature Infants
It seems that music is not merely a cultural value; we are hardwired to respond to it. An Israeli study found that premature babies who were exposed to Mozart had slowed metabolism. This led to weight gain.
The full extent of possibilities for music therapy have yet to be explored. Some successful work has been done using music to improve communication with children who have developmental disabilities. It’s certain that music helps to map new brainwaves, but there is still a lot of research to be done. People working in the field of music therapy disagree on certain points as well; for example, music may raise someone’s spirits, but that is not necessarily the same thing as the use of music to specifically improve a person physically in a measurable way. One thing that seems certain, however, is that the hundred-year-old field of music therapy is on the verge of its most exciting breakthroughs yet.