Music therapy uses music to promote positive changes in the wellbeing of an individual. These positive changes may be manifested in changes in physical development, social and interpersonal development, emotional or spiritual wellbeing or cognitive abilities.
The therapeutic benefits of music have been known and harnessed since ancient times. However, music therapy in modern times dates back to the World Wars when music was used in hospitals in the rehabilitation and recovery of soldiers who had suffered physical or emotional trauma. The University of Kansas was the first University in the United States to offer a degree program in music therapy in 1944.
Early exponents of music therapy in the 1950’s to 1970’s included the French cellist Juliet Alvin and Paul Nordoff and Clive Robbins. The Nordoff-Robbins approach is still used in many countries around the world including the USA, UK, Australia, Germany and South Africa.
So, how does music therapy work?
Music is universal and connects across language barriers. Most people can respond to music in some way regardless of illness or disability.
Music has an inherent ability to generate an emotional response in the listener. It stimulates a relaxation response which can therefore lead to physiological changes in the body. Music is known to reduce stress thereby producing related benefits such as lower blood pressure, improved respiration, reduced heart rate, better cardiac performance and reduced tension in muscles.
Music is processed in both hemispheres of the brain and this stimulation has been shown to help in development of language and speech functions. It promotes socialization and development of communication, self expression and motor skills. Children and adults with autism spectrum disorder have been found to respond very positively to music and many of them display high levels of musical skill.
Music encourages verbal as well as non verbal communication and promotes social interaction and relatedness. It’s a valuable outlet for self expression and creativity. It has also been successfully used in pain management by providing a distraction from the painful stimulus as well as a means of relaxation and stress alleviation.
Children with developmental and learning difficulties, children and adults with autism spectrum disorder or special needs as well as the elderly and dementia sufferers have all been shown to benefit from music therapy. Although the benefits of music therapy have been accepted intuitively and based on anecdotal evidence it wasn’t till recently that quantitative evidence of its efficacy started to emerge.
In a recent study conducted by the University of Miami School of Medicine blood samples of a group of male Alzheimer’s patients who were treated with music therapy were found to have significantly elevated levels of melatonin, epinephrine and norepinephrine which are chemicals which act on the brain to control mood, depression, aggression and sleep. The benefits of the therapy were still evident even six weeks after cessation of the therapy and in the case of melatonin the effects persisted even longer.
Music therapy is gaining wider acceptance in the general medical community and has certainly stood the test of time. Music therapists can now be found practicing in a variety of institutions dealing with mental health, developmental and early intervention programs, correctional institutions and special education programs to name but a few. Many are having success where traditional treatment methods have failed.