DEAR DOCTOR K:
I recently visited a friend in the hospital. During my visit, a music therapist came in and played music for her. The idea of music therapy seems very New Age to me. Is there any evidence for it?
Music therapists are accomplished musicians who use their knowledge of music and its effects to help people get through medical challenges such as recovering from a stroke or healing after surgery. Music therapists may play music for you or with you. They may even teach you how to play an instrument.
This all sounds great. But, as you say, it also sounds pretty New Age, and you asked if there is any evidence behind it. Actually, there is. A growing body of research attests that music therapy can improve medical outcomes and quality of life in a variety of ways.
For example, music therapy:
- Improves the experience of invasive procedures. Controlled clinical trials looked at people having colonoscopies, cardiac angiography and knee surgery. Those who listened to music before their procedure had reduced anxiety and a reduced need for sedatives. Those who listened to music in the operating room reported less discomfort during their procedure. Hearing music in the recovery room reduced the use of opioid painkillers.
- Restores lost speech. Stroke or traumatic brain injury can damage the region on the left side of the brain that is responsible for speech. Music therapy can help. How? The ability to sing originates in the right side of the brain. People who are recovering from stroke or brain injury can work around the injury to the left side of their brain by first singing their thoughts. Then, gradually, they can drop the melody.
- Reduces side effects of cancer therapy. Listening to music reduces anxiety associated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It can also quell nausea and vomiting for patients receiving chemotherapy.
- Aids pain relief. Music therapy has been tested in patients with different types of pain, including intense acute pain and chronic pain. Music therapy decreases the perception of pain and reduces the amount of pain medication needed. It also helps relieve depression and gives people a better sense of control over their pain.
- Improves quality of life for dementia patients. The ability to engage with music remains intact into the later stages of dementia. Music therapy can help to recall memories, reduce agitation, assist communication and improve physical coordination. A wonderful documentary film released in 2014, “Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory,” demonstrates the value music can have in awakening memory among people with dementia. It is a memorable experience to see people who appear terminally lost to the world, barely able to communicate in words, come alive to music.
Most of the studies I refer to have used classical music and popular songs. I’m not aware of any studies using newer forms of popular music like punk, rap or heavy metal. Do they, too, relieve anxiety, promote wound healing and help restore speech and memory? Call me old-fashioned, but I doubt it.