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Beyond the Mainstream

Music From the Soul, for the Body

September 04, 2000|Barrie R. Cassileth

"Music exalts each joy, allays each Grief, expels Diseases, softens every Pain, subdues the rage of Poison and the Plague."

--John Armstrong, "The Art of Preserving Health, Book IV" (1744)


Earlier this decade in what was Yugoslavia, an amazing discovery occurred. It was a segment of the thighbone of a cave bear, used by Neanderthals who walked the Earth more than 43,000 years ago. The amazing aspect was that the bone remnant contained four carefully spaced holes: It was a prehistoric flute. Our Neanderthal cousins made music all those centuries ago. Perhaps they used it to help manage mysterious problems such as illnesses.

Later, music was simultaneously deified and linked to healing by the ancient Greeks, who worshiped Apollo as the god of music and healing. That formal connection has persisted through time and across cultures. People the world over invoked music and sound as part of their healing ceremonies. From the wonderfully eerie hum of Tibetan bowls, to the rhythmic drumbeats of African and Native American peoples, to the songs of Malaysian priest-doctors, music remains a cradle of comfort and a powerful healing tool.

Few can doubt music's ability to influence our behavior. We turn to music to express our feelings or to move others to action. We sing lullabies to put our babies to sleep and "The Star-Spangled Banner" to express our patriotism. Favorite ballads express our love, and some contemporary music expresses our anger. An entire industry was created when Muzak provided soothing background music for shops, offices, elevators and restaurants, turning them into calming environments that induced a more leisurely pace.

It is not surprising to learn that modern medicine also knows the value of music. Music therapy offers proven benefits. It is well tolerated, inexpensive, easy to manage and free of side effects. It enhances the effectiveness of both primary medical treatment and rehabilitation therapy, treating pain, anxiety and other ills. Every day it is applied in many and varied health care settings, including operating and delivery rooms, dental offices and rehabilitation centers.

Although there is not yet a well-documented theory to explain how music therapy works, research shows that it reduces blood pressure, heart rate, respiration and body temperature. It benefits mood and seems able to improve immune and hormone function.

Music promotes healing and a general sense of well-being, alleviating the physical and emotional pain that accompanies many medical conditions. It has been shown to decrease anxiety and depression in terminally ill patients, thereby improving the quality of remaining time. Health professionals found long ago that music enhances the care and rehabilitation of the elderly and disabled. Hospitalized heart attack patients experience significant reductions in heart rate, respiratory rate and anxiety levels after listening to relaxing music.

Studies also show that music can alleviate symptoms in patients recovering from strokes or struggling with Parkinson's disease. Music helps patients in their fight against substance abuse, physical disabilities, brain injuries, mental retardation and autism. Investigations involving patients with dementia or Alzheimer's disease find that musical cues increase patients' attention and their ability to focus on their immediate surroundings.

In hospital delivery rooms, music often is used to reduce women's need for medication during childbirth. It works for children too, reducing anxiety among youngsters about to undergo surgery. Premature babies gain weight more quickly when music is played for them.

Research in intensive care and pre- and post-operative centers documents the ability of music therapy to measurably reduce patients' needs for medication. A dramatic example of music therapy's power occurred not long ago in the ICU of a large urban cancer center. The family of a comatose patient asked the music therapist to play the patient's favorite song on her guitar. The patient opened her eyes, her lips curved into a small smile, and she reached a shaky hand toward her family--a fleeting, final miracle invoked by music therapy to the joy and astonishment of family and staff. Professionally trained and certified music therapists (there are more than 5,000 in the U.S., many with graduate degrees) work with patients individually and in groups. They play musical instruments, listen to and discuss recorded music, and encourage patients to write and talk about original music that expresses their feelings or fears. Depending on patients' strength, preferences and ability, they may want to join in, playing instruments from simple drums to guitars to portable keyboards.

Selection and choice are major keys to success. The therapist must come to understand the patient's musical interests, which often requires learning about the patient's lifestyle, and the therapist must have the ability to play many instruments and various types of music, from pop tunes to bluegrass to opera, according to the patient's preferences.

Ancient Egyptian tomb paintings depict harp players and other musicians creating a better afterlife. We know now that music therapy can benefit the living, healthy or ill, in profoundly useful and pleasant ways.


Barrie Cassileth is chief of integrative medicine at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and the author of "The Alternative Medicine Handbook" (Norton, 1998). Her column appears the first Monday of the month. She can be reached at

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