Music For Health


By Rachel Williams ’20

How many of you reading this article are struggling with one or more of the following: stress, depression, or sleep deprivation? All of you? Okay, then keep reading. The problems mentioned are difficult to treat, in part because they can be completely different for different people.

The good news for people with disabilities, both mental and physical, is that there is a new area of research in music. Music therapy is a relatively new and very exciting field of study and while music therapists work with a variety of populations, their work and research can help some of us right now. With music we can find what works best for us specifically, and with some time and practice, we can all use the tools we already have, to produce considerable results.

Consider for a moment an eight week study done by psychologist Suzanne B. Hanser as cited in the book, Why You Love Music. She studied thirty elderly people suffering from depression and stress. Ten of them participated in personal music exercises with music of their choice for one hour a week. Ten of them used a set of instructions in these activities plus a weekly phone call with Suzanne. The last ten received nothing and were told to wait until the end of the eight week period.

The last group in the study did not improve by any measurable standards, but the other groups improved immensely. After comparing the stress/depression tests between the beginning of the study and the end, researchers found that their results were close to those of non-depressed people. The most remarkable part is that none of the volunteers were under the use of antidepressant medications They were able to improve with just an hour a week of music. This can also be applied to sleep. If you suffer from insomnia at night, working music into your nighttime routine can be extremely beneficial.

There are several easy ways to improve health through music. Music can directly affect  heart and breathing rates along with exciting the pleasure centers in the brain. A study  by Anne Blood and Robert Zatorre , found in Why You Love Music), discovered that listening to pleasant sounding music increases blood flow to the pleasure centers of the brain while decreasing blood flow to the amygdala ,which is involved in fear responses. They also found that dissonant sounding music had the opposite effect. The results of this experiment and others like it give evidence that music has the amazing power to affect  emotions.

Anyone dealing with anxiety or stress can put the results of this experiment to good use. Next time you feel stress levels rising, try plugging in your earbuds and listening to something calm, familiar, and happy sounding. Try to release the tension built up in your body and really focus on the music. The outcome may be a pleasant surprise. According to an article by the Online Therapy Institute, listening to calm music can help release tension in forms of headaches and tight muscles. The speed of the music is very important. If you were close to falling asleep in your last class go ahead and listen to that upbeat rock song you love during the passing period. However, if your upcoming test has your heartbeat up and your breathing out of whack, a slower song would probably be the better choice. The specific choice of song is up to you. Taking some time to practice using music in this way will ultimately make you a happier and more productive person.


For More Information:

  • To learn more about how music affects the brain, check out the book Why You Love Music by John Powell. Powell’s writing is interesting and easy to read while still giving his readers a lot of useful information. No previous study in music and psychology is necessary to learn how these two areas are related.
  • For more information on music therapy and how it is being used to treat both mental and physical conditions try reading Andrew Shulman’s book, Waking the Spirit. Shulman is what he calls a “Medical Musician”. He writes from a unique perspective, having been miraculously healed by the power of music, and now he uses his music to help people in his local hospital.


Specific Music Recommendations:

If you are stuck on how to start finding music to help you health wise, here are a few things that work well for me

  • Piano Study Music– this album will work magic for your concentration. It is perfect for studying because it is calm and transitions between songs easily so your mind is not distracted by the changing songs
  • Find a song that means something to you- my personal favorite is “Neverland” from the Broadway musical “Finding Neverland”. You can give this song a try or just find any song that has a calming effect. Certain voices will have different effects, so look around and see what works best for you
  • Focus on the music- next time you are feeling anxious or stressed, take a minute to really listen to a song. Try to focus only on the music. The artists and performers put a lot of thought into when and how certain instruments come into the song. Listening to music in this way takes practice, but it will ultimately take you deeper into the music and away from what is causing you stress.