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Natural Awakenings San Diego

Healing Harmonies: Music As Medicine

Aug 15, 2019 09:27PM ● By Marlaina Donato

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From ancient Mongolian shamans that used drumming for physical and emotional healing to modern, board-certified music therapists that work with special needs kids, science now confirms what we’ve always known: Music makes us feel better.

Decades after Don Campbell’s groundbreaking work about the cognitive effects of listening to the music of Mozart, growing research reveals music’s ability to reduce chronic and acute pain, restore brain connections after a stroke, boost immunity and promote brain development in children. Recent studies of the benefits of music published in BJPsych International show decreased depression in patients with neuropsychiatric disorders and improvement in people with certain types of epilepsy.

Neurochemistry and Pain Reduction

Listening to music we find pleasurable can have an analgesic effect on the body, and researchers theorize that the brain releases a cascade of natural opioids, including dopamine. A pilot study on cancer patients published in the Indian Journal of Palliative Care in 2016 shows a significant reduction of pain when individuals are exposed to music for 20-minute intervals.

Music also minimizes chronic pain associated with syndromes like fibromyalgia. Collective studies published in Frontiers of Psychology in 2014 suggest that relaxing, preferred choices of music not only reduce fibromyalgia-related pain, but also significantly improve mobility.

Dementia, Stroke and Brain Development

Board-certified music therapists like Sheila Wall use live and recorded music to catalyze therapeutic changes in their clients. In her Eau Claire, Wisconsin, practice, Wall works with a wide range of clients ranging in age from 3 to 104. “Music bypasses the language and intellectual barriers in the brain that can prevent healing. Music helps the brain compensate for whatever damage that has occurred through illnesses, disease or trauma,” she says. “I also work with children to help them build language and motor skills through music.

Research last year by the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles has shown that music training strengthens areas of the brain that govern speech, reading skills and sound perception in children. The results, published in Cerebral Cortex,  indicate that only two years of music study significantly changes both the white and gray matter of the brain.

Music bypasses the language and intellectual barriers in the brain that can prevent healing.
~Sheila Wall

Kirk Moore, in Wheaton, Illinois, is a certified music practitioner who provides live therapeutic music for people that are sick or dying. He says he sees daily changes through music. “I see heart rates slow down and blood pressure reduced. Breathing becomes steadier; pain and nausea cease.” Moore has also witnessed patients with aphasia—a language impairment caused by stroke or other brain damage—spontaneously sing-along to songs and regain the ability to speak. One memorable patient could only utter a single word, but listening to Moore ignited a dramatic change. “I sang ‘You Are My Sunshine’ and within seconds, she was singing. After 20 minutes of music, I expressed to the patient my hopes that the music had been helpful to her. ‘Oh goodness, yes!’ she responded.”

Pick Up a Drum

Drumming has been proven to be able to balance the hemispheres of the brain, bolster immunity and offer lasting physical and emotional benefits for conditions ranging from asthma to Parkinson’s disease, autism and addiction recovery.

Medical research led by neurologist Barry Bittman, M.D., shows that participation in drumming circles helps to amp up natural killer cells that fight cancer and viruses such as AIDS. Recent research published in PLOS/ONE reveals a profound reduction of inflammation in people that took part in 90-minute drum circles during the course of the 10-week study.

Music and End of Life

Music’s capacity to bring healing and solace also extends to the end of life. Classically trained musician and certified music practitioner Lloyd Goldstein knows firsthand the power of providing music for cancer patients and the terminally ill. “I feel a deep responsibility to be as present as I can possibly be, to what I’m doing, the people I’m playing for,” says Goldstein, who left a secure orchestra position to join the team at The Arts In Medicine Program at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida. “It’s taught me how to be a better musician and a better person.”

As much as the musician gives, music gives back. “I end up calmer than when I begin a session. That healing environment travels with me,” Moore says.


Marlaina Donato is a composer and the author of several books.


This article appears in the August 2019 issue of Natural Awakenings.

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