Studies Explore the Healing Power of Music

The right kind of music has been proven to alleviate stress and scientists have used it to heal a young girl’s brain.
Studies Explore the Healing Power of Music
Maria Han

Beautiful music can move an audience to tears while a high-pitched sound can shatter glass. The vibrations and frequencies that make up the sounds have a powerful effect on the human mind—and body, say some scientists.

The right kind of music has been proven to alleviate stress and scientists have used it to heal a young girl’s brain, help Alzheimer’s patients, aid recovery from surgery, and raise people’s IQs. Ancients used music as a fertility treatment and to target ailments in specific organs.

Music and Healing

“Music is a uniquely effective tool for treating neurological impairment because it recruits nearly every region of the brain,” wrote William Forde Thompson, a distinguished professor of psychology at Macquarie University, and Gottfried Schlaug, associate professor of neurology at Harvard University, in an article published by Scientific American.

Their article told the story of how an 11-year-old girl, Laurel, suffered from a stroke that resulted in permanent brain damage. She was unable to communicate clearly although her language comprehension was perfectly intact.

Through melodic intonation therapy, a connection was built between the hearing and speaking regions in Laurel’s right brain. This connection bypassed the speech pathways on the left side of her brain which were badly damaged.

“By the end of the 15-week treatment period, she could speak in sentences of five to eight words, sometimes more,” wrote Thomspon and Schlaug.

In 2015, the year their article was published, eight years had passed since Laurel’s accident. She had become an inspirational speaker hoping to motivate stroke survivors.

Laurel’s healing through singing is becoming more and more common. There are choirs around the world where members are stroke survivors, communicating again through music.

Music as Medicine

Music has been used to improve health across many different cultures throughout history.

Thompson and Schlaug mentioned a few examples such as frescoes in Egypt depicting the use of music to improve fertility in women.

One study has suggested that music can indeed increase the rate of successful pregnancies by five percent in women undergoing IVF (in vitro fertilization) procedures.

“Shamans in the highland tropical forests of Peru use chanting as their primary tool for healing, and the Ashanti people of Ghana accompany healing ceremonies with drumming,” wrote the authors.

A research article on music in Chinese medicine stated that music used in therapy has been effective. Traditional Chinese medicine went a step further by pairing the five music scales; gong (d0), shang (re), jue (mi), zhi (sol), yu (la), with each of the five major organs; spleen, lung, liver, heart, and kidney, as well as the five elements; wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. The authors of the article, Hui Zhang and Han Lai, call this “five phases music therapy.”

The authors also stated that the five major organs correspond to five moods. “Thinking corresponds to the spleen (Gong), sorrow/worry to the lungs (Shang), anger to the liver (Jue), joy to the heart (Zhi), and fear/fright to the kidneys (Yu) respectively,” wrote Zhang and Lai.

When an ailment is discovered in a certain part of the body, listening to music of the scale that corresponds to that organ may help alleviate the problems there, said the authors.

“The music of Shang strengthens the astringing and purifying effects of the lungs and regulates water metabolism,” said Zhang and Lai.

Harvard medical specialists have deemed music beneficial in one way or another, including patients recovering from surgery, patients with Alzheimer’s disease or other ailments, as stated in the article (pdf) “Music as Medicine: the impact of healing harmonies,” published in 2015.

While music cannot cure Alzheimer’s, it can alleviate confusion and anxiety in patients, according to the article.

Music is also used at certain medical centers to help with surgery preparation, procedure, and recovery.

“We encourage patients to listen to music before, during, and after surgery,” says Susanne Cutshall, a clinical nurse at Mayo Clinic.

Music and Learning

Mozart’s music is famously said to make babies smarter, but does it really?

While Harvard did not experiment with babies, the University of California, Irvine, asked three groups of college students to take an IQ test after listening to ten minutes of either Mozart, a relaxation tape, or silence for ten minutes.

The groups that listened to Mozart consistently did better than the others.

However, it is important to note that these results were temporary and the margin of “better” was not very large. The IQ of those who listened to Mozart only increased by eight to nine points and it only lasted for 15 minutes. When Harvard redid this experiment, they received an even more marginal improvement of two IQ points.

What Kind of Music Is Best?

In 1992, Dr. Masaru Emoto began a series of experiments with water crystals. Water that was exposed to positive words such as “hope” and “love” formed beautiful, whole water crystals, he said, while words like “ugly” formed discolored, unshapely masses that don’t resemble crystals.

He also played music to see the impact it would have on water. He played different types of music ranging from Vivaldi to “Imagine” by John Lennon to heavy metal. While classical music and “Imagine” produced whole water crystals, heavy metal created a mass of vibrations without any apparent order.

Emoto’s methodology has met with some criticism, and his experiment has been criticized for being difficult to replicate.

But if his findings are true, it would be interesting to note that water makes up about 60 percent of the human body depending on age and gender.

A comparison was made of classical and popular music by James O. Young, professor of Philosophy at the University of Victoria, in a study.

His research looked at the use of chords, tools for musical expression, range of rhythms, etc., and found that classical music fared much better than pop, rock, or other modern genres in its usage of these musical components.

“Popular music has difficulties attaining precision of expressiveness that can rise to profundity,” he wrote.

Classical music, on the other hand, “can achieve fine-grained expressiveness difficult to attain in popular music.”

Maria Han is an arts and beyond science writer.
Related Topics