In 2013, the Beth Israel Medical Center’s Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine conducted a study in which they exposed 272 premature babies to three types of music: live singing of lullabies, an instrument called an “ocean disc” that mimicked sounds in the womb, and a drum-like instrument called a gato box that could imitate heartbeat rhythms. The researchers found that all three types of music soothed the babies and lowered their heart rates. They also found that a specific type of music had specific effects. The “ocean disc,” for example, helped the babies sleep better, while singing increased the amount of time they stayed both quiet and alert.
Music as Therapy
People have known for generations that music has therapeutic qualities. The saying, “music has charms to soothe the savage breast” is well-known enough to have inspired the occasional joke. It is similarly well-known that music can relax and cheer people, and it can serve as an outlet for people’s emotions. This is why music therapy is worth exploring as a potential treatment for mental illnesses.
Music as Pain Relief
What’s less well-known is that researchers have begun studying ways to use music as a treatment for specific conditions. Music can, for instance, help relieve pain. Researchers from the University of Alberta conducted a study at a pediatric emergency ward in which they played relaxing music for some of the patients getting IVs inserted. The patients who had listened to the music experienced less pain than the patients who did not. The doctors administering the IVs also reported that the children who had listened to music were more cooperative than the ones who had not. This could have implications for those suffering from psychosomatic pain, which presents as a symptom of several common mental disorders.
Music has similarly beneficial effects on adult patients. The Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in Singapore offers music therapy for this reason. One study found that the patients who took part in the music therapy experienced relief from their pain. One of the researchers speculated that singing or playing instruments allowed the patients to “reconnect with the healthy part of themselves.”
Music and Dementia
Music therapy can also help people with dementia, a group of degenerative nerve disorders that impair thinking and memory and can also cause personality changes, like increased aggression. Patients with dementia who participate in music therapy are reported to appear less agitated and aggressive than those who do not. What’s even more impressive is that music therapy reportedly reduces the severity of their symptoms.
Limitations of Music Therapy
As promising as the results have been, experts caution that music therapy should not be the sole treatment for a disorder; it should be used in conjunction with something else. Furthermore, the type of music might make a difference. Finally, according to a music teacher with a master’s degree in music education, music that’s played too loudly can damage the eardrums and cause hearing loss.
There are likely many applications for music therapy in the treatment of mental illnesses which have yet to be explored. Hopefully, in the years to come, research will determine what these are and how to implement them to improve the lives of those suffering from mental disorders.