How music can improve your health

It’s believed that music has been used since practically the beginning of time to help humans deal with difficult feelings and better connect to one another. Because of its strong and immediate influence over our emotions, coupled with its ability to naturally increase neurochemicals – including “feel good” endorphins – music is now being added to many rehabilitation programs across the world.

Music therapy (MT) has shown promise for improving both motor control and emotional functions in patients with a wide range of diseases or disabilities. From cases of schizophrenia to Parkinson’s disease, musical interventions seem to help naturally decrease symptoms like anxiety or depression, help ignite creativity, improve communications between patients and their caregivers, and much more.

What is music therapy?

Music therapy is based on the improvisation of music by a therapist and patient, sometimes done in a one-on-one setting but other times conducted in groups. There are two main branches of MT: active and passive. Active MT involves interaction between therapist and the patient, much more than passive MT, in which the patient is usually at rest but listening to the therapist.

With passive therapy, the therapist plays calming music and invites the patient to visualize peaceful images and reflect on their inner dialogue, feelings and sensations. In most active music therapy sessions, the therapist and patients both work together using instruments and their voices – and sometimes bodies, such as to dance or stretch.

The use of instruments in MT is structured to involve as many sensory organs as possible – incorporating touch, sight and sound. In both types of MT, rhythmic and melodic components of music are manipulated, so they work as stimuli to help uncover and work-through certain emotions, such as sadness, grief, frustration, loneliness, joy, gratitude, etc.

How music affects the brain and body:

How exactly does music therapy work to relieve stress, lower depression and counteract other negative mind states exactly? Some of the key ways that MT can help you feel better or even lower the need for use of prescription drugs, such as tranquilizing medications or hypnotics commonly prescribed for cognitive loss or anxiety, include increasing:

  • self-acceptance
  • self-awareness and expression
  • stimulation of speech
  • motor integration
  • a sense of belonging
  • and enhanced communication and relationships with others, both highly tied to happiness


6 health benefits of music therapy

  • Reduces anxiety and physical effects of stress

An article published in the Southern Medical Journal states, “Although there are wide variations in individual preferences, music appears to exert direct physiologic effects through the autonomic nervous system.” Music has the ability to cause immediate motor and emotional responses, especially when combining movement and stimulation of different sensory pathways.

When instrument playing is involved, both auditory and tactile stimulation help produce a state of mental relaxation. Music is now used as a form of natural therapy for many different diseases, even showing benefits for those with severe social anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder.

Not surprisingly, studies have found that MT seems to have the most benefits when combined with other interdisciplinary practices, such as physical exercise, occupational and speech therapy, psychological counseling, improved nutrition and social support.

  • Improves healing 

One of the ways that MT is being used in hospital settings is by reducing anxiety prior to procedures or tests. Studies have found that MT lowers anxiety in patients undergoing cardiac procedures and seems to relax patients after surgery or during follow-up invasive diagnostic procedures.

It’s suggested that music can positively modify release of stress hormones that are beneficial for neurological, immune, respiratory and cardiac functions involved in healing.

  • Can help manage Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Disease

Both anecdotal evidence and clinical studies show that MT improves both cognitive functions and quality of life in patients suffering from cognitive impairments, including Parkinson’s (PD) and Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

According to a report printed in the World Journal of Psychiatry, “Mood disorder and depressive syndromes represent a common comorbid condition in neurological disorders with a prevalence rate that ranges between 20–50 percent of patients with stroke, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease.

Research shows that the act of music-making provides a form of uplifting therapy for these patients that helps them cope with progressive worsening of symptoms, and offers stimulation to their senses and an element social support when sessions are conducted in groups.

In 2000, the American Psychosomatic Society published research regarding the positive effects of music therapy in helping to improve a number of symptoms in those with PD, by managing things such as sensory loss, disability or depression.

According to the researchers, “Music acts as a specific stimulus to obtain motor and emotional responses by combining movement and stimulation of different sensory pathways.” The randomized, controlled, single-blinded study included 32 patients with Parkinson’s that were split into either the MT or control group.

The study lasted three months and consisted of weekly sessions of music therapy combined with physical therapy (PT). During music therapy sessions, treatment consisted of group choral singing, voice exercises, rhythmic and free body movements, and active music involving collective invention. Researchers also incorporated physical therapy to include stretching exercises, specific motor tasks, and strategies to improve balance and gait.

After three months – using the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale, emotional functions with the Happiness Measure, and quality of life using the Parkinson’s Disease Quality of Life Questionnaire – results show that MT offered significant overall benefits. Positive effects were measured for bradykinesia, motor improvement, control of emotional functions, improvements in activities of daily living, and improved overall quality of life.

  • Reduces depression and other symptoms in the elderly

MT is now highly recommended in geriatric care settings because it helps improve social, psychological, intellectual and cognitive performance of older adults. Depression, feelings of isolation, boredom, anxiety over procedures and fatigue are common complaints among geriatric patients. Both active and passive MT seem to help with mood improvement, providing a sense of comfort and relaxation and even modifying caregiver behavior.

Sessions have shown positive effects when conducted before anxiety-provoking procedures or for patients staying in intensive care units. For worried caregivers, music is considered a “cost-effective and enjoyable strategy to improve empathy, compassion and relationship-centered care.”

  • Helps reduce symptoms of psychological disorders, including schizophrenia

Findings from a 2017 study conducted in South Korea indicate that a 12-week program of group music therapy serves as an effective intervention for improving psychiatric symptoms and interpersonal relationships in patients with mental illness such as schizophrenia.

The music program used in the study, which was published in the Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, was modeled after Nantaa popular and long-running type of non-verbal comedy show in South Korea that incorporates traditional samul nori rhythms. The unifying elements throughout Nanta music are performed with improvised instruments, such as cutting boards, water canisters and kitchen knives, and are almost totally non-verbal.

  • Improves self-expression and communication

One of the longest-standing uses of music interventions helps treat those who are physically or mentally handicapped and living in rehabilitation centers, who have difficulty with self-expression. For those with physical handicaps, receptive music therapy is used to help patients have “flow experiences” when listening to stimulating music, to learn how to better respond through verbal and non-verbal feedback based on changing music stimuli.

In children with developmental delays – such as autism or delayed speech development, who are more at risk of acquiring other cognitive, social-emotional and school-related problems – music therapy helps facilitate speech development quickly (within about 8 weeks), teaches turn-taking, and improves imitation or vocalization.

How to find a reputable music therapist

How does someone earn a music therapy degree, and where do music therapists become employed?

The American Music Therapy Association states on their website that Music Therapy is “The clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy degree program.”

Meeting with a certified music therapist is very different then simply listening to music on your own. Professional sessions will allow you to experience personalized therapy aiming to achieve emotional well-being, physical health, social functioning, communication abilities and cognitive skills through musical responses. Things that your musical therapist might employ during sessions include:

  • improvisation
  • receptive music listening
  • creative song writing
  • lyric discussion
  • music with guided imagery
  • singing, playing, dancing and performance
  • learning through music

To find a therapist qualified to practice music therapy, look for someone who has completed an approved bachelor degree, masters program or recognized equivalencies. Most therapists have a master’s degree in music therapy and have completed an internship before becoming eligible to sit for the national examination offered by the Certification Board for Music Therapists.

To verify certification credentials of an individual, you can visit here. This allows you to locate and check music therapists who have successfully completed the independently administered examination to hold the credential “Music Therapist, Board Certified (MT-BC).” Other accreditations may include RMT (Registered Music Therapist), CMT (Certified Music Therapist) and ACMT (Advanced Certified Music Therapist).

Precautions regarding the use of music therapy

Music therapy is comparable to other treatments like psychotherapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy in that individual responses and improvements vary. Treatments can sometimes be costly and are not always reimbursable through insurance, although this seems to be changing. The American Music Therapy Association now estimates that approximately 20 percent of music therapists receive third party insurance reimbursement for the services they provide.

To help with coverage, speak to your insurance provider about your illness, symptoms, injury and need for intervention. If you have questions regarding how you’re responding to MT sessions, ask your regular healthcare provider for advice or consider speaking with someone such as a cognitive behavioral therapist in addition to a music therapist.

This article originally appeared on and is republished here with permission.

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