Music for Healing

Speakers, Image Courtesy of renjith krishnan,

Music therapy has been used effectively to treat a variety of conditions, ranging from brain-based problems such as stroke-related deficits, Alzheimer’s disease symptoms, and epileptic seizures to acute and chronic physical and emotional pain and anxiety.

Alzheimer’s Disease

A 2010 Boston University School of Medicine study has shown that providing information within musical contexts (singing rather than speaking) significantly improves recall by individuals with Alzheimer’s disease (but not healthy adult control subjects). Music processing draws upon a larger network of brain areas than straightforward information memory, and these music-processing areas don’t decline as rapidly as the areas typically associated with nonmusical memory. This means that people with Alzheimer’s probably benefit from using more brainpower when memorizing musical information than nonmusical information (Boston University Medical Center, 13 May 2010).

Music therapy, with selections tailored to patient requirements, also shows promise for reducing depression and anxiety in those with Alzheimer’s disease (Guetin et al., 2009).

Stroke and Brain Injury Rehabilitation

Music therapy is showing promise for enhancing rehabilitation after stroke and brain injuries, which can negatively impact language ability and movement. Music therapists, using techniques such as rhythmic auditory stimulation designed to stimulate specific brain functions, can help stroke patients increase their walking speed. Music therapy can also be used to improve speech functions (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

As many as 6 in 10 stroke survivors also suffer reduced visual awareness, which makes it difficult to perceive objects in the visual field opposite the stroke-damaged brain area. This condition can be so severe that the individual only shaves half of his face or eats food on one side of a plate. A small study of those with reduced visual awareness found that subjects were able to identify red lights and coloured shapes on the problem side of their visual field significantly more often when listening to music they liked than with music they disliked or in the silent condition. This effect is believed to result from preferred music’s ability to produce a more positive mood, which may increase the brain’s ability to process stimuli (BBC News, 24 March 2009).

Pain Relief

Lim and Locsin’s (2006) review of the use of music therapy for pain relief found that in 5 of 9 studies examined, patients received significant pain reduction, while 3 studies yielded mixed results, which the researchers attribute to methodological problems. Henry’s (1995) literature review also indicated that music therapy has the potential to reduce both anxiety and pain caused by severe injury, illness, and medical treatments. Numerous other researchers have found that music therapy can reduce:

    • Pain during surgical recovery (Good et al., 2002)
    • Pain caused by medical procedures (Broscious, 1999)
    • Labour pain (Phumdoung & Good, 2003)
    • Cancer pain (Hilliard, 2003)
    • Chronic pain (McCaffrey & Freeman, 2003; Schorr, 1993)

Which music is best for pain relief? According to the research of Mitchell et al. (2008), whichever music the individual prefers. The researchers subjected volunteers to several trials of cold pressor pain, finding that music increased pain tolerance and reduced anxiety, and that preferred music was the most effective for reducing the perception of pain.

Research conducted by Siedlecki and Good in 2006 found that subjects suffering from a variety of painful conditions who listened to either their choice of music or relaxing selections chosen by the researchers experienced pain reductions of 12-24%, compared to an increase of 1-2% for the music-free control group. In this case there was no statistically significant difference between the preferred music group and the group who listened to researcher-chosen selections, which included jazz, harp, orchestra, piano, and synthesizer music (Blackwell Publishing Inc., 24 May 2006).

Depression and Anxiety

Arslan et al. (2008) found music to be effective in reducing the anxiety experienced by patients shortly before surgery. This finding was in line with numerous prior studies showing a variety of anxiety-reduction benefits with music therapy. For example, Chafin et al. (2004) found that listening to classical music (though not other musical genres) was correlated with significantly lower post-stress blood pressure levels compared to those of subjects in the no-music condition.

Siedlecki and Good’s study subjects experienced 19-25% less depression than those in the no-music control group and felt subjectively far less disabled and more in control of their pain than subjects in the music-free condition (Blackwell Publishing Inc., 24 May 2006). This is remarkable, given that all of the subjects who participated in this study had suffered from painful, disabling, stressful conditions such as severe arthritis and disc problems for many years.

A number of other studies (in most cases focused on reducing the anxiety people experience before, during, and after stressful and painful medical procedures) have found significant reductions in anxiety with music therapy (Henry, 1995; Palakanis et al., 2994; White, 1999).

In recent years, researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University have been conducting research to determine the ways in which music conveys emotion via lyric content, timbre, pitch, tonality, rhythm, tempo, structure, and other characteristics, with the goal of developing music therapies to treat physical pain and depression. The resulting music-on-prescription therapies would alleviate emotional suffering by helping to regulate mood using customized musical selections (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, 10 September 2010).


Epilepsy, a common neurological disorder that triggers seizures, afflicts approximately 3-5% of people worldwide (Sidorenko, 2000).

There have been a number of intriguing findings regarding music’s effects on epilepsy. In a study of 29 epileptics conducted by Hughes et al. (1998), listening to a Mozart piano sonata caused a significant reduction in epileptiform activity. Perhaps most intriguing, even a comatose epileptic patient received anti-epileptic benefits from Mozart exposure.

Also worth noting is a case study of a young girl with a severe type of epilepsy whose seizures were reduced significantly after listening to classical music. Hearing Mozart’s music for 10 minutes of each hour throughout the day reduced the total number of seizures the girl suffered from 9 in the first 4 hours to just 1 during the final 4 hours, and decreased the duration of attacks. Repeating the procedure the following day also reduced the number of attacks, so the effect was unlikely to be coincidental (Hughes et al., 1999).

Another fascinating study was conducted by Sidorenko (2000). Subjects included 22 epileptics who acted as a control group and 34 who received 1 hour per day of Medical Resonance Therapy Music (MRT-Music), a specialized therapy developed by classical composer and musicologist Peter Huebner.

MRT-Musc, rhythmically natural music that is believed to affect the central nervous system, was associated with the following benefits:

    • Reduction in the severity and frequency of paroxysms in 80% of cases, compared to 20% in the control group
    • 90% of patients reporting positive subjective states, compared to 35% in the control group

Although there haven’t been many music therapy studies that have focused specifically on epilepsy, it’s possible that other forms of music besides classical can also provide benefits.

While certain types of music appear to be beneficial for most people with epilepsy, those suffering from an extremely rare condition called musicogenic epilepsy have seizures when they hear certain music (Lemonick & Dorfman, 2000).

Famous musicians who have suffered epileptic seizures include Neil Young, Lindsey Buckingham (of Fleetwood Mac), Adam Horovitz (of the Beastie Boys), and Prince.

How to Find a Music Therapist

If you are seeking a music therapy provider, visit the Music Therapy for Autism page for a list of international and country-specific music therapy associations (scroll down to the bottom of the page for this directory).

For more information about music as therapy and studies of the psychological effects of various musical genres including heavy metal, rap, country, and jazz, visit the Music Psychology page. For more health articles, visit the main Mind-Body Health page.


    • Arslan, S.; Ozer, N.; & Ozyurt, F. (2008). “Effect of Music on Preoperative Anxiety in Men Undergoing Urogenital Surgery.” Australian Journal of Advanced Nursing, 26(2), 46-54.
    • BBC News. (24 march 2009). “Music Therapy ‘Restores Vision’.”
    • Blackwell Publishing Ltd. (24 May 2006). “Listening To Music Can Reduce Chronic Pain And Depression By Up To A Quarter.”
    • Boston University Medical Center. (13 May 2010). “Music Aids Alzheimer’s Patients in Remembering New Information.”
    • Broscious, S.K. (1999). “Music: An Intervention for Pain During Chest Tube Removal After Open Heart Surgery.” American Journal of Critical Care, 4(8), 410–415.
    • Chafin, S.; Roy, M.; Gerin, W.; & Christenfeld, N. (2004). “Music Can Facilitate Blood Pressure Recovery from Stress.” British Journal of Health Psychology, 9(3), 393-403.
    • Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. (10 September 2010). “Music on Prescription Could Help Treat Emotional and Physical Pain.”
    • Good, M.; Anderson, G.C.; & Stanton-Hicks, M. (2002). “Relaxation and Music Reduce Pain After Gynaecologic Surgery.” Pain Management Nursing, 3(2), 61-70.
    • Guetin, S.; Portet, F.; Picot, M.C.; Defez, C.; Pose, C.; Blayac, J.P.; & Touchon, J. (2009). “Impact of Music Therapy on Anxiety and Depression for Patients with Alzheimer’s Disease and on the Burden Felt by the Main Caregiver (Feasibility Study).” Encephale, 35(1), 57-65.
    • Henry, L.L. (1995). “Music Therapy: A Nursing Intervention for the Control of Pain and Anxiety in the ICU: A Review of the Research Literature.” Dimensions in Critical Care Nursing, 14(6), 295-304.
    • 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), 113–117.
    • Hughes, J.R.; Daaboul, Y.; Fino, J.J.; & Shaw, G.L. (1998). “The ‘Mozart Effect’ on Epileptiform Activity.” Clinical Electroencephalography and Neuroscience, 29(3), 109-119.
    • Hughes, J.R.; Fino, J.J.; & Melyn, M.A. (1999). “Is There a Chronic Change of the ‘Mozart Effect’ on Epileptiform Activity? A Case Study.” Electroencephalography and Neuroscience, 30(2), 44-45.
    • Lemonick, M.D., & Dorfman, A. (2000). “Music on the Brain.” Time, 155(23), 74.
    • Lim, P.H., & Locsin, R.R. (2006). “Music as Nursing Intervention for Pain in Five Asian Countries.” International Nursing Review, 53(3), 189-196.
    • McCaffrey, R. & Freeman, E. (2003). “The Effect of Music on Elderly Osteoarthritis Patients After Hip and Knee Surgery.” Journal of Advanced Nursing, 43(5), 44-48.
    • Mitchell, L.A.; MacDonald, R.A.; & Knussen, C. (2008). “An Investigation of the Effects of Music and Art on Pain Perception.” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 2(3), 162-170.
    • Pakanis, K.C.; DeNobile, J.W.; Sweeney, W.B.; & Blankenship, C.L. (1994). “Effect of Music Therapy on State Anxiety in Patients Undergoing Flexible Sigmoidoscopy.” Diseases of the Colon & Rectum, 37(5), 478-481.
    • Phumdoung, S., & Good, M. (2003). “Music Reduces Sensation and Distress of Labor Pain.” Pain Management Nursing, 4(2), 54–61.
    • Schorr, J.A. (1993). “Music as a Pattern Change in Chronic Pain.” Advances in Nursing Science, 15(4), 27-36.
    • Sidorenko, V.N. (2000). “Effects of the Medical Resonance Therapy Music in the Complex Treatment of Epileptic Patients.” Integrative Physiological & Behavioral Science, 35(3), 212-217.
    • White, J.M. (1999). “Effects of Relaxing Music on Cardiac Autonomic Balance and Anxiety After Acute Myocardian Infarction.” American Journal of Critical Care, 8(4), 220-230.
    • Wiley-Blackwell. (7 July 2010). “Rhythm of Life: Music Shows Potential in Stroke Rehabilitation.”

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