In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin theorized that music was a kind of protolanguage, ingrained in humans’ brain circuits and perhaps widely spread across the animal kingdom. He was wrong about the second point, according to psychologist Aniruddh Patel; humans are one of the few species able to recognize a beat and move in sync to music. But his first point holds merit, as research suggests that humans’ connection with music begins before birth. Babies in the womb can hear at 16 weeks and familiarize themselves with repeated melodies. The mere sound of their mother singing can decrease their heart rate, which further suggests music’s deep emotional and physical impact on the human body.
Researchers like Patel are trying to understand why exactly music moves us so deeply. The answers could further illuminate the benefits of music therapy, in turn, convincing hospital administrators and other health authorities of the importance of integrating this art form into mainstream medicine.
Music has been used informally in medicine since ancient times. In ancient Greece, people relied on music for overall well-being, as well as for healing of certain diseases. Greeks believed that singing hymns would appease the gods and banish plagues. This bond between healing and song is suggested by the Greek god Apollo, the overseer of both music and medicine. Over time, European, African, Native, and Asian cultures have incorporated music into medicine in different ways. Musical therapy received formal recognition in the United States in the 1950s, when the newly formed National Association for Music Therapy (NAMT) collaborated with the American Medical Association.
Recently, music has gained popularity in settings involving individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive conditions. This is because music is believed to evoke emotions and memories stored in the prefrontal cortex, which is one of the last regions of the brain to be impacted by Alzheimer’s. (The hippocampus, which controls many memory processes, is usually the first region to be targeted.) Approximately 5.5 million Americans are living with this particular disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Of these, over one million live in hospital environments that often lack warmth and stimulation. In some hospital settings, elders have little stimuli other than contact with caregivers.
This reality prompted Dan Cohen to found Music and Memory, an organization that trains health care professionals to create personalized music playlists for patients in their care with cognitive and physical difficulties. Patients listen to the playlists on iPods and other digital devices, and the results are extraordinary, according to the organization. Music taps deep memories not lost to dementia, allowing individuals to re-identify with themselves, converse with others, and stay present. In 2014, the documentary Alive Inside followed the project, capturing moments in which individuals were rejuvenated by music, recalling life details that were previously inaccessible.
Music taps deep memories not lost to dementia, allowing individuals to re-identify with themselves, converse with others, and stay present.
Cohen says that New York City Health + Hospitals has adopted his organization’s program into all eleven of its public hospitals. “The largest hospital system in Australia is also using Music & Memory in a number of hospitals,” he adds. “We’ve learned how excited medical professionals become when they see the impact.” He and his colleagues are drawing on these insights to advocate for personalized music in all hospitals. The public can support their efforts by donating iPods, volunteering time, or simply by gathering information about music therapy to present to others.
The Environmental Music Program at Massachusetts General Hospital is transforming treatment with music through different means. In this case, music is not used individually with patients; rather, volunteer musicians play instruments in lobbies and main areas to create a more restful and pleasant atmosphere. Live performers are encouraged to adjust the style of their music based on the situation and moods of the crowds. This can lessen stress and anxiety by distracting people from immediate, health-related concerns.
It’s working, according to patient Beverly Merz. Merz wrote about her experiences waiting for a mammogram while a string quartet played in a breast imaging center: “My thoughts immediately shifted from ‘What are they going to find on the mammogram?’ to ‘Is that Schubert, or Beethoven?’ By the time my name was called, I had almost forgotten why I was there.” As Merz notes, controlled studies demonstrate music’s potential to improve outcomes in invasive procedures (by reducing anxiety and the need for sedatives and painkillers); aid in recovery after a traumatic brain injury; reduce the side effects of cancer therapy; reduce pain; and improve quality of life for chronically ill patients.
In the same city where she was treated, Music in Hospitals and Nursing Homes Using Entertainment as Therapy (MIHNUET) supports undergraduate musicians to give live performances in nursing homes and care sites. Since beginning in 1995, the organization has facilitated many long-lasting connections between students and the elderly.
Initiatives such as this one suggest that many individuals are willing to give their time and talents toward the cause of music therapy in clinical settings. But as music therapist Suzanne Hanser suggests, music is most impactful if integrated within and beyond the hospital.“The goal is to stop thinking of music as a treatment and make it an essential part of everyday life.”