Science has established that music has a powerful effect on our moods—even music that makes us cry can help us feel better. Meanwhile, a 2013 review of more than 400 studies showed that “listening to music has clear benefits for both mental and physical health,” the authors write—including helping us relax, improving immunity, and lowering anxiety before surgery.
That’s why music therapy is considered a valuable tool by medical professionals. According to the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA), music therapy can involve listening to, writing, or moving to music; traditionally, sessions are led by a credentialed therapist in both inpatient and outpatient settings. (So, very different from just listening to Amy Winehouse on repeat after a breakup to feel better.)
What exactly are the benefits of music therapy?
When music is used as a form of therapy for patients facing specific illnesses (in addition with other conventional treatments like medication and lifestyle changes), it can actually provide some science-backed benefits. Here's what people can get from music therapy:
1. It can help lessen depression symptoms
A 2015 review of existing literature around music therapy and depression by Dutch researchers found that patients who participated in music therapy, in addition to more standard treatments (like medication and talk therapy), saw a “significant and persistent reduction in their symptoms,” the authors wrote. Another 2015 review, this one examining music therapy as a treatment for psychosis-related depression, also points to music therapy as an effective way to manage patient symptoms.
2. It can reduce pain levels
Music, it turns out, can majorly alter our perception of pain. Studies of people on ventilators, pediatric patients who had undergone surgery, patients suffering from chronic pain due to back problems, fibromyalgia, or neurological issues, and cancer patients—just to name a few—all show that music therapy reduced participants’ reported pain levels.
Experts aren’t quite sure exactly how music works its magic, but one potential explanation is that it has a direct impact on our brain’s subcortex—including the areas that regulate our responses to stress—and can prompt the release or inhibition of neurochemicals that affect how, and what, we feel.
3. It may improve symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease
A 2017 review of 21 separate studies by Spanish researchers found that patients with Alzheimer’s showed some improvement in cognition, mood, and behavior when they participated in music therapy sessions. Still, the review acknowledges that more research is needed in order to draw any definitive conclusions about why music therapy caused these improvements and what kinds of music therapy are most effective for people with Alzheimer's.
4. It may help relieve physical symptoms of Parkinson's Disease
Early research into a specific form of music therapy, called vibroacoustic therapy, found that the treatment may be effective in alleviating symptoms of Parkinson’s, including tremors and difficulty walking. (The study was small—on only 40 people—so results are far from conclusive. But still, pretty promising.) During vibroacoustic therapy, patients lie down or sit on a mat or chair with built-in speakers; low-frequency, computer-generated sound then causes the mat or chair to vibrate.
5. It can help improve the health of preemies
Even the littlest patients saw big improvements when they were exposed to music. A massive review of 46 studies published in 2018 found that “musical stimulation and music therapy demonstrated significant effects on preterm infants and their parents.” Premature infants who listened to pre-recorded or live music were healthier, slept better, and even ate better, per the review; what’s more, several of the studies reviewed showed that these benefits continued well after the babies were discharged from the hospital.
Across many of these studies, a common thread emerged: the kind of music patients listen to matters. But that isn’t to say one genre was more effective than any other. Instead, patients seemed to respond best to music that fits their existing preferences.
How to find a music therapist
Looking for a music therapist isn't quite the same as hitting up the TherapistFinder app, since music therapists have a bit different training from your standard psychologist or psychiatrist. Generally, qualified music therapists have a bachelor's or a master's in music therapy (many of whom go to music school), which requires studying a combination of music, music therapy techniques, and psychology. After the required hours of coursework and an internship, they then take an examination to become board-certified.
All of that is to say: Music therapy different from traditional talk therapy, but there's still a ton of training and study that goes into it. If you're interested in finding a music therapist, the AMTA has an online database you can use to find a legit specialist in your area.
Music therapy might seem a little out there, but for many people, it can be a helpful tool in their toolbox when addressing pain, depression, or other issues. And anything that involves spending time listening to music seems pretty promising, wouldn't you agree?
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