Notes of Healing: The Power of Music as Therapy

When Grace was born 27 weeks into her mom’s pregnancy, a harpist was conducting research in her Boston neonate intensive care unit. Her mom, Mary Liz Van Dyck, says that the delicate sounds of the harp were a soothing melody amid the clinical noise of constant beeping, alarms, and the bustle of hospital staff.


When she was 15, Grace was in intense pain after undergoing an operation for a rare form of spinal cancer. Nothing seemed to be working. Then a music therapist put her fingers on a harp, and Grace felt, for the first time in three years, the pain leave her body. “Music allows patients the chance to express themselves,” she says, “we’re usually very tense and music allows us to let our guard down. Patients are being told by doctors and nurses what to do at all times.” And as she wrote in a song: “All these voices talking to me, And my own voice not coming through.”

The music not only allowed a physical release from pain, but also gave the gift of emotional validation. Trauma survivors and those with traumatic brain injuries appear to have a similar response — music gives another way of voicing that which individuals may otherwise find difficult articulating.

Music and voice are powerfully intertwined. Catherine Parker who has a master’s degree in music therapy, from Immaculata University in Pennsylvania, went into the field because her father suffered a traumatic brain injury when he got hit by a car back in 1992. Parker recalls: “He had astasia, and one of the things that he would do constantly was sing. I saw how music helped him regain his speech, he has recovered incredibly and is now pursuing his educational doctorate.” She is also a co-director of the Melmark Joybells, a handbell choir consisting mainly of adults with Down syndrome who made their national debut on “The Today Show.” As a group, they have found that singing helps improve speech challenges.

The bells are not only symbols of joy and expression for Parker’s group, but also for the cancer patients at Massachusetts General Hospital. Grace has rung the bell twice at the end of radiation treatments. It’s a hospital tradition at the end of treatment, symbolizing personal rejoicing and a sound of hope for others still undergoing the treatment.

But it is the harp that speaks most to Grace. She and her music therapist, Lorrie Kubicek of Next Set, don’t play set tunes during their sessions together. They sit across from each other and if Grace is feeling happy they play tunes in major keys. If she is feeling down, the pitch dips to minors. Is there also a hidden memory going back to her infancy for why the harp soothes her distress? No one knows but there is plenty of research to show that the elegant instrument has a profound healing effect.

The National Institutes of Health reported in 2011 that combining harp music with kangaroo care (premature babies kept in a pouch close to their mother) was more beneficial than kangaroo care alone in reducing maternal anxiety, but had little impact on the infants. However, another study showed that live harp music slowed heart rates and induced deep sleep in infants, and in a hospital setting, it improved medical care given by nurses and doctors.

Harp music, especially when played live, has also been found to reduce pain and anxiety in those recovering from cardiac, vascular, and thoracic surgeries, as well as those in hospices, who have reported deeper and more peaceful sleep. And as Mary Liz Van Dyck, Grace’s mom, wryly notes, it’s a cheaper treatment than pharmacology.

So why isn’t music used more often than drugs or invasive procedures? For a start, the top 500 pharmaceutical companies are expected to spend $140 billion on research and development this year, with the United States swallowing 31 percent of all the drugs consumed in the world, according to market analysts. For music therapists, it’s a bit harder to compete. Money talks, music soothes, but more hospitals and physicians are exploring the harmony linking the two.

Music triggers the release of pleasurable dopamine in the dorsal and ventral striatum of the brain. The pupils in our eyes dilate. Our pulse and blood pressure rise. The electrical conductance of our skin is lowered. The cerebellum, a brain region associated with bodily movement, activates. Blood is redirected to your leg muscles and so you find yourself tapping your feet, drumming your fingers, or moving your head. Those with Alzheimer’s disease who have difficulty walking suddenly stand and glide when waltz music is played.

Finnish researchers from the University of Helsinki reported in March that listening to classical music (in their case, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3, in G major), enhanced the activity of genes involved in dopamine secretion and transport, synaptic neurotransmission, learning and memory, and downregulated the genes mediating neurodegeneration — the death of critical neurons for thinking and motor skills. Those used to playing a musical instrument, for example, may forget their loved ones and all memory may erase, though their capacity to play music will persist.

The Finnish team also reported: “One of the most up-regulated genes, synuclein-alpha (SNCA) is a known risk gene for Parkinson’s disease that is located in the strongest linkage region of musical aptitude. Several of the up-regulated genes were known to be responsible for song learning and singing in songbirds, suggesting a common evolutionary background of sound perception across species.”

These results are echoed by research done by The Auditory Neuroscience Lab at Northwestern University, which found that regular music-making strengthens nonmusical brain functions like memory, attention, vocal emotion, speech in noise, and even reading and language. Pitch is key to music and speech. Musicians are less likely to struggle with hearing in noisy circumstances than older adults who are not persistently exposed to music in their lives. The brain continues to profit from music lessons for four decades after these stop. Additionally, their research among children from poor communities has shown that music training gives an advantage to those from  learning-deprived neighborhoods in terms of language and concentration. A child who is musically trained may do better than one from a privileged background who has not had music education.

Anticipation is one of the secrets to the joy we feel when we listen to music we enjoy, as listening to music accelerates activity in the caudate. This subregion of the striatum connects to sensory, motor, and associative regions of the brain implicated in learning through stimuli. The brain responds to the mathematical structure of music and starts organizing its thoughts around it, and effectively as we anticipate the music hitting certain keys we experience pleasure.

“All of this means that children who play a musical instrument have better cortical organization in attention skill, anxiety management, and emotional control,” according to James Hudziak, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont and director of the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families.

It seems that Shinichi Suzuki was correct when in the 1950s he began teaching 2-year-olds how to play the piano (still a prevalent practice in Japan). He declared, decades before neuroscience proved him right: “I want to make good citizens. If a child hears fine music from the day of his birth and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline, and endurance. He gets a beautiful heart.”

Hudziak’s hypothesis was that music might be a better antidote for anxiety, aggression, and mental disorders in children than pills. His team used a database from the National Institutes of Health MRI study of normal brain development to analyze the brain scans of 232 healthy children aged 6 to 18 who play musical instruments. They found that playing music altered the motor areas of the brain promoting cortical thickness and helped improve “executive functioning, including working memory, attentional control, as well as organization and planning for the future.”

Baroque music, especially that of Mozart, with its characteristic 60-beats-per-minute pattern, activates the left and right brain, which maximizes learning and the retention of information. According to The Center for New Discoveries in Learning, learning potential can be increased five times using classical music from the baroque period. The ancient Greeks, as another example, sang their dramas because they understood how music could help them remember lines more easily.


Grace believes that not just classical music is helpful, she has found healing in Taylor Swift songs: “I also listen to a lot of show tunes especially ‘Le Miserable’ and ‘Annie.’ ” She and her mom smile and spontaneously start singing, “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow.”

Grace, who is wearing bright fuchsia lipstick, a red jacket, and a 1920s-style silver slide in her hair, and who has found it so hard to get the medical staff to ask her about her views, or to listen to her when she tries to speak, deserves the last words through her song: “Just let the music save you, Let your melody come through, Hold on to yourself, Let your true colors shine.”

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