Music holds a unique and important place in virtually all cultures on earth today and has likely held a similar position for tens of thousands of years. Its historical prominence is clearly evident through artifacts such as a vulture bone flute found in Hohle Fels, Southern Germany, in 2008. This flute was carbon-dated to be approximately 40,000 years of age, highlighting just how long music has been woven into the fabric of human culture and society.
Image Credit: WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock.com
History of music in healthcare
While the role that music plays anthropologically is highly complex and multifaceted, it is much easier to quantify its effects on the individual. One fascinating question that has risen once more to prominence is: What health benefits does music harbor?
The concept of implementing music as a medicinal tool is not new. For example, the ancient Greeks believed that music could be used to treat a wide plethora of disorders and ailments, ranging from alcohol-induced hangovers to depression.
Native American Shamanism also has a long history of incorporating music, often in the form of rhythmic singing and percussion, directly into its healing processes (the title “Shaman” translates directly as “healing man’).
Modern-day research has only strengthened this age-old position that music can potentially play an important role in various aspects of health and well-being. Current treatment strategies involving the use of music can be separated into distinct categories; the most prominent of these being: Music Therapy, Music Information Retrieval (MIR), and Music Psychology & Neuroscience . Music therapy broadly describes the implementation of music to achieve individualized therapeutic goals.
MIR involves the computational analysis of musical structures as well as a patient’s interaction with these structures in varying contexts. Finally, music psychology & neuroscience denotes the study of the neuronal mechanisms underpinning our ability to create, appreciate and interact with music.
In general, the positive effects that music can have on health tend to be due to its anxiolytic, pain- and stress-reducing capabilities. Such benefits are of course highly advantageous in the treatment of a vast range of diseases and disorders. For example, one meta-analysis showed that music therapy appears to have a statistically significant positive effect on postoperative pain, stress, and anxiety in children who underwent minimally invasive or invasive surgeries. As well as this, music therapy has improved the quality of life of terminal cancer patients, and has reduced depressive symptoms in both cancer and non-cancer patients.
Moreover, there has been a significant amount of emphasis placed on the potential use of music as an adjunct therapy (if not a primary treatment strategy) for the amelioration of various mental health ailments such as depression and anxiety. Sanfilippo, Stewart, and Glover of the University of London and Imperial College London recently carried out a literature review of the role that music may play in supporting perinatal mental health. Drawing on studies that implemented at least one of the three aforementioned music intervention categories, they found that these interventions can help in reducing pain and anxiety during labor, as well as the symptoms of postnatal depression.
Music and well-being
However, the benefits of music do not appear to be limited to the treatment of serious disorders; it can also be used to augment general health and well-being, For example, Karageorghis et al. (2012) have found that music induces ergogenic effects; i.e., it can amplify the body’s capacity for both mental and physical strain by reducing the symptoms of fatigue. This means that music can be used to improve performance during exercise, while also stimulating psychophysical and psychological benefits.
While music-based interventions are easily implementable on an individual basis to improve general health, it is more difficult to bring into widespread use in a clinical or hospital setting.
"It is important to remember that music is both cultural and personal. You always have to find the right sounds”
Dr. Phillip Speiser, the Director of Parkside Arts and Health Associates of Boston
In other words, any music-centric treatment strategy has to be tailored specifically to the patient in order to evoke the desired therapeutic effects. Logistically, this would be a challenge for any healthcare institution to implement.
It should also be noted that research pertaining to music in healthcare has typically been undertaken on smaller populations to date and often cannot take into account external factors such as population demographics during the analysis.
Nonetheless, it is clear that music has the potential to be used to ameliorate mental and physical ailments, as we all improve general health and well-being. Given time and resources, music undoubtedly holds the potential to act not only as a conduit for creativity and as a profound means for enhancing human connection, but also as a valuable tool to be used in the perpetual pursuit of the highest possible standard of healthcare.
- Harvey, A. W. (1980). The therapeutic role of music in special education; Historical perspectives. The Creative Child and Adult Quarterly, 5 (3), 196-204.
- Dobrztnska, E., Cesarz, H., Rymaszewska, A. K. (2006). Music therapy- history, definitions and application. Archives of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, 8 (1), 47-52.
- Agres, K. R., Schaefer, R. S., Volk, A., van Hooren, S., Holzapfel, A., Dalla Bella, S., ... & Magee, W. L. (2021). Music, Computing, and Health: A roadmap for the current and future roles of music technology for health care and well-being. Music & Science, 4, 2059204321997709.
- van der Heijden, M. J., Oliai Araghi, S., van Dijk, M., Jeekel, J., & Hunink, M. M. (2015). The effects of perioperative music interventions in pediatric surgery: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. PloS one, 10(8), e0133608.
- Hilliard, R. E. (2003). The effects of music therapy on the quality and length of life of people diagnosed with terminal cancer. Journal of Music therapy, 40(2), 113-137.
- Tang, Q., Huang, Z., Zhou, H., & Ye, P. (2020). Effects of music therapy on depression: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. PloS one, 15(11), e0240862.
- Sanfilippo, K. R. M., Stewart, L., & Glover, V. (2021). How music may support perinatal mental health: an overview. Archives of Women's Mental Health, 1-9.
- Karageorghis, C. I., Terry, P. C., Lane, A. M., Bishop, D. T., & Priest, D. L. (2012). The BASES Expert Statement on use of music in exercise. Journal of sports sciences, 30(9), 953-956.
- Lea Wolf, M., & Wolf, T. (2011). Music and health care, a paper commissioned by the musical connections program of carnegie hall’s weill music institute. Cambridge, MA: Carnegie Hall and WolfBrown. in computer users. Business & Information Systems Engineering, 4(2), 61-69.