Music is now a government-endorsed painkiller.

This is not to say the Food and Drug Administration has approved rock, jazz, or hip-hop MP3 downloads as over-the-counter analgesics. But stretching beyond the labels of “alternative” or “complementary” healing techniques, music and sound have been studied and applied to patients in recent years in well-funded federal labs with impressive and verifiable results.

Musician David Ison, who suffered severe pain and disability in a car accident in 1980, used meditation, sound, and music to help regain his strength and mobility far beyond what his doctors had believed possible. Following his accident, in which he temporarily lost mobility in his legs, he faced probable spinal fusion surgery. He then began to create orchestrations and sound-healing programs that have helped countless others.

Since the introduction of David Ison’s programs to relieve pain and anxiety, the NIH has used music therapy with more than half a million of their patients with great results.

George Patrick, Ph.D., director of the Rehabilitation Medicine Department, National Institutes of Health (NIH), says, “The more we use David Ison’s music, the more we are convinced of its clinical effectiveness.”

Dr. Patrick and Ison are not alone. Classical composer Marc Neikrug, who has performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, said that he wrote his most recent composition, Healing Ceremony, in part to soothe cancer patients and others facing critical illness: “This is not a treatment, but it can surely put you in the right place.” It can, he added, serve as an effective antidote to stressful feelings and to the seat of pain.

Since the introduction of David Ison’s programs to relieve pain and anxiety, the NIH has used music therapy “with more than half a million of their patients with great results,” Ison said.

What’s new is the breadth and statistical reliability of using meditative sound and practice to relieve pain and stress among wide swaths of subjects.

In one sense, this may seem surprising. In another, harking back to ancient meditative practice, it may prompt the question: What took us so long? After all, evidence of tracking chakra energy in healing ways dates back to 600 B.C. Which means that millions upon millions of Asian citizens have used similar practices to great effect—absent the imprimatur of Western medical study or FDA approval.

What’s new is the breadth and statistical reliability of using meditative sound and practice to relieve pain and stress among wide swaths of subjects. As Mathieu Roy, Ph.D., a postdoc fellow with the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at the University of Colorado, has reported: “Our findings show that non-pharmaceutical interventions—mood enhancers such as photography or music—could be used in the healthcare [setting] to help alleviate pain. These interventions would be inexpensive and adaptable to several fields.”

Despite the welcome neuroscientific news about healing music and the mind, it bears repeating that one cannot merely pop on earbuds, download a Spotify-rated spiritual chant single, and swear off proven pain medication for life. No, first we need to prime the brain, via meditative or relaxation work.

Before the body’s healing energies can be directed toward pain centers, relaxation responses need to occur. And even among the likes of the yoga set, this takes practice. Or in many cases, guided meditation. But the payoff may be not only naturally pleasing and pain-relieving, but of lasting and profound benefit.

For samples of music and rhythmic healing sounds and science, visit:

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