Music as Medicine

In the broadest sense of the term ‘medicine’, most would agree without question that music can definitely have positive effects to our mental and emotional well-being. (In a sense it also improves our physical health, insofar as most people cannot engage in exercise without it.)

The Atlantic reports on The Sync Project, a recently launched, Boston-based initiative seeking to further our understanding of the neurological and physical effects of music on humans. The goal is to go beyond anecdotes and produce more measurable evidence for how and why music impacts us, and from there look into any possible medical applications.

You can learn more about this interesting endeavor here, but I am interested in sharing what we do know about music:

Current research into how music affects the body and brain shows that there is at least some degree of influence, physically and psychologically.

For instance, research published in 2005 by Theresa Lesiuk at the University of Windsor, Canada, concluded that music helped to improve the quality and timeliness of office work, as well as overall positive attitudes while people were working on those tasks. A review in 2012 by Costas Karageorghis found there was “evidence to suggest that carefully selected music can promote ergogenic and psychological benefits during high-intensity exercise”. Meanwhile, Stefan Koelsch in Berlin has found “music can evoke activity changes in the core brain regions that underlie emotion“, and physically, “happy” music triggers zygomatic muscle activity—that is, smiling—and “sad” music “leads to the activation of the corrugator muscle”—the frowning muscle in the brow.

“Just because music—or anything else—acts upon a part of the brain, does not mean that mental health can be influenced”, Robert Zatorre, a neurologist at McGill University and a scientific advisor for The Sync Project, wrote in an email. “We need far more sophisticated understandings of what is going on in a given disease before we can really answer” the question of if music can definitively affect mental or physical health. “That said, there are a few promising avenues that people are trying with particular disorders, and hopefully that work will accelerate in future”.

Parkinson’s disease is among those specifically cited as being mitigated by the power of music. I can certainly attest to my depression and anxiety being assuaged by music, though of course a variety of other lifestyles changes contributed.

I look forward to seeing what efforts like The Sync Project discover. What are your thoughts and experiences regarding the medical potential of music therapy?

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