If you’ve ever popped a favorite CD into your car stereo during rush hour to soothe your nerves or take your mind off the long commute ahead, you’ve tapped into something music therapy professionals know: music can have real effects on body, mind and mood. In fact, it has been shown to stimulate the brain centers that register rewards and pleasure — the same places that respond positively to food, sex or even alcohol and drug use.
“In my work, we try to make music accessible,” says Barbara Reuer, PhD, a music therapist who works with patients at Scripps. “Making music in a group setting for just 30 minutes helps your immune system, increases the count of disease-fighting t-cells in the body and builds a sense of camaraderie.”
Music therapy can start with activities as simple as shaking a rhythm shaker egg, maracas or drumming in beat with others, or it can become an advanced exercise in writing expressive lyrics and singing with a group. It has long been used to help groups of patients facing similar life-threatening diagnoses, like cancer.
“Cancer patients in support groups are among my favorite people to work with,” Dr. Reuer says. “They are all connected through their diagnosis and they are interested in doing everything they can to get and remain well. So they’re usually quite open to integrative therapies like making music with others in similar circumstances.”
Research findings have supported a wide range of music therapy benefits. Various studies suggest it can do the following:
- Change brain waves
- Lower heart rate
- Reduce blood pressure
- Slow breathing rate
- Reduce anxiety and depression and create a positive mood
- Reduce symptoms of insomnia
- Boost the effects of anti-nausea medications in chemotherapy patients
- Help reduce short-term pain
- Improve comfort at the end-of-life
These benefits have typically been measured immediately after a music therapy session. But simply listening to favorite songs or playlists is also a form of self-led music therapy.
After listening to music, the next level of engagement is using the voice to create music. “When I introduce humming, toning and singing, people engage in mindful control of their breath and diaphragm,” says Dr. Reuer. “Deep, controlled breath is a part of many meditative practices. There’s also research out there that suggests when you hum, you’re creating an internal massage. This can help people with tight jaws or sinus issues.”
One surprising application of humming, according to Dr. Reuer, is breaking through the tossing-and-turning, obsessive thought patterns of insomnia. “Either you hum or you think. You can’t do both,” she says. “If you can’t turn off the buzzing in your head, try humming a relaxing, simple tune. Before you know it, you may find the alarm clock is going off the next morning.”