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Music Is My Best Friend

Sound’s Power of Healing.

Nowadays, we are more and more often bombarded with different yearly activity summaries. These reports, generated by platforms we use, provide us with insights about our exercise patterns (fitness applications), favourite artists (streaming), the number of pages read (books), articles shared (news), etc. The comparisons can tell us a lot about what we like, but also offer a nice review of how our habits or tastes changed over the years. Looking at one such report has inspired me to reflect on how music affects me and conduct some subsequent research on what therapeutic power it possesses.

My History of Music Listening

For me, one of the greatest sources of such insights is my account on Last.fm, a music platform that used to be quite popular in my high school years, but now has quite lost its status (at least in my social circles). I believe it was one of the first platforms to offer music recommendations based on your listening history. Recently, I decided to go back in time and see what I have been listening to several years ago (I have had an account on Last.fm since 2008).

What surprised me was the difference in the amount of music listened to over the years. The number of songs played in a year could be more than 21,000 and in another year — only one-third of it (7,021). It was unexpected, as in my perception, the affection I have for music has not changed over the years. I have always been quite a serious music lover, and I did not register any considerable change in my behaviour in terms of listening as I grew up and went through different life stages (for instance, as I finished studying and started working, I didn’t listen to music more/less than before).

The number of my scrobbles (song plays) in the last 15 years.

I started thinking about what could be the reason for such differences and came to a realisation that the amount of music I listened to within a year correlates with the number of difficulties I have encountered during that time and also the number and length of emotionally charged periods. Then it all started to make more sense, as I am quite aware of the fact that I often use music as a way to soothe myself. Whatever emotions I am feeling at the moment, music lets me process them. I tend to choose songs that really match my mood and help me get through a painful moment or make the most out of a happy one. And that is how I began to wonder — is it just me, or can music really have a healing effect on people? I did some research in the scientific journals and I will summarise below what I found on the topic, as I find it extremely interesting.

Music as Therapy

I have already known the notion of music therapy, but with no details of it. Thanks to my research, I found out it is an “established allied health profession” in which music is used as a supportive measure for therapy. The musical element of the therapy which the patient undergoes is individually tailored to his/her needs. A typical music therapy session may include either receptive or active interventions. In a receptive intervention, a patient only listens to either live or prerecorded music. Active interventions may include involving the patient in activities like making music improvisations, recreating music sounds and pieces or composing own music. There is a distinction between music as medicine in which a nurse or a doctor supplies a patient with a prerecorded music intervention (for example, sounds of the ocean waves), and music therapy — a holistic therapeutic approach provided by specialists trained in using music within the therapeutic relationship as a means to help the patient achieve the therapy goals [1].

The benefits one can accrue from music therapy depend on the individual characteristics of the person, but also on many other factors, such as elements of the music, setting, whether the participation is passive (listening) or active (playing). Overall, they can belong to one of the three categories: physiological, psychological and socioemotional [2].

One study examining the psychophysiological effects of music was conducted on 66 patients of intensive care units in Hong Kong. The patients were undergoing a painful, cardiologic procedure and the goal of the scientists was to check whether music can make people experience less pain. If yes, then people in the experimental group — those who received 45 minutes of music therapy during their rest after the procedure — would achieve a significantly higher reduction in values of physiological and psychological parameters than people in the control group (those that were resting without the music). And this is indeed what they found. Patients from the experimental group had a significantly higher reduction in blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, oxygen saturation, and self-reported pain scores [3].

Music is already employed to improve the health conditions of patients suffering from depression, cancer, schizophrenia, dementia [4]. There is evidence established that it can help autistic children “develop the capacity for spontaneous self-expression, emotional communication, and social interaction” [5]. Moreover, it is already utilised in programs for people fighting with addictions — be it drugs, alcohol or medications. In that specific case, one important role music therapy can play is the motivational role. This type of therapy is perceived by recovering addicts as less intrusive and more neutral than traditional confrontational one, so it has more power to motivate them to continue their rehabilitation program. However, it can also help with less severe conditions, for instance, sleep disturbances. It has been shown that listening to music before sleeping helps improve the subjective and often also objective sleep quality [6].

How Does the Music Do Its Healing?

A good question to ask now would be — how does this actually happen? What does music do to our bodies that it can bring us so much positive change? It would take an entire book to explain it, but let me just give you a few examples.

First, music can play many regulatory roles in our biological functioning depending on the condition from which the patient suffers. In studies examining the impact of music on people suffering from depression, the scientists uncovered that music can weaken the frontal EEG asymmetry — the state in which right frontal activation is greater than the left — which is correlated with depression [7]. For patients with autism, it can be used to help develop verbal and gestural communication, and this is thanks to the fact that music carries neurolinguistic meanings [5]. What this means in practice is that it works similarly as a spoken language (including solely instrumental music, abstract sounds) [9]. It is a communication tool that carries a certain meaning and engages us subconsciously in understanding the intentions of someone that created it. Its hierarchically organised sequential structure allows our brains to extract from it the meaning and emotions that it conveys [8].

As I mentioned earlier, I personally feel that music helps me process all different kinds of emotions. I could not put it into words how it precisely does that, but after reading one of the articles, I have a better grasp of it now. It seems that even sad music is able to create pleasurable experiences and improve moods because it can bring relaxation, reflection (so the emotional processing which I notice the most) and a sense of belonging. People explain it allows them to “channel their emotions”, to “reminisce about past events/places/people” or to “let express the thoughts to others” [10]. After all, who isn’t guilty of sending a song with an “encrypted” message to your crush? (I definitely am.)

Here is also an important note for all the runners — music has been found to improve the running performance of people who are mentally fatigued. The research finds that in a state of mental fatigue, your running interval capacity and time-trial performance are better when you are running with music [11]. The explanation the scientists give is that potentially music changes the way you perceive the running effort — even though it objectively is the same, you experience it less strongly. So if you had a terribly exhausting day at work/school/university that typically makes your runs much more difficult, a good solution might be to put the headphones on and play the music you like while running.

All the above only confirms what most of us already recognise, without knowing the precise biological underpinnings — music can bring us genuine pleasure, relief or happiness. I couldn’t end this piece differently than by including a playlist of mine that is my personal emotional soother. I call it — a hug given by the music. It includes the songs that fill me with these warm feelings of calm. Hope you can feel it too.

PS: You are more than welcome to share your favourite soothing songs/playlists in the comments. More music is always appreciated when I’m concerned.

References

[1] De Witte, M., Lindelauf, E., Moonen, X., Stams, G. J., & van Hooren, S. (2020). Music therapy interventions for stress reduction in adults with mild intellectual disabilities: Perspectives from clinical practice. Frontiers in Psychology, 3310.

[2] Kemper, K. J., & Danhauer, S. C. (2005). Music as therapy. South Med J, 98(3), 282–8.

[3] Chan, M. F. (2007). Effects of music on patients undergoing a C-clamp procedure after percutaneous coronary interventions: A randomized controlled trial. Heart & Lung, 36(6), 431–439.

[4] Porter, S., McConnell, T., McLaughlin, K., Lynn, F., Cardwell, C., Braiden, H. J., … & Heale, A. (2017). Music therapy for children and adolescents with behavioural and emotional problems: A randomised controlled trial. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 58(5), 586–594.

[5] Lin, S. T., Yang, P., Lai, C. Y., Su, Y. Y., Yeh, Y. C., Huang, M. F., & Chen, C. C. (2011). Mental health implications of music: Insight from neuroscientific and clinical studies. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 19(1), 34–46.

[6] Cordi, M. J., Ackermann, S., & Rasch, B. (2019). Effects of relaxing music on healthy sleep. Scientific Reports, 9(1), 1–9.

[7] Field, T., Martinez, A., Nawrocki, T., Pickens, J., Fox, N. A., & Schanberg, S. (1998). Music shifts frontal EEG in depressed adolescents. Adolescence, 33(129), 109–117.

[8] Molnar-Szakacs, I., & Overy, K. (2006). Music and mirror neurons: from motion to’e’motion. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 1(3), 235–241.

[9] Steinbeis, N., & Koelsch, S. (2008). Comparing the processing of music and language meaning using EEG and fMRI provides evidence for similar and distinct neural representations. PloS One, 3(5).

[10] Eerola, T., & Peltola, H. R. (2016). Memorable experiences with sad music — reasons, reactions and mechanisms of three types of experiences. PLoS One, 11(6).

[11] Hui Kwan Nicholas Lam, Harry Middleton, Shaun M. Phillips. The effect of self-selected music on endurance running capacity and performance in a mentally fatigued state. Journal of Human Sport and Exercise, 2021; 17 (4).

Additional links

American Music Therapy Association: https://www.musictherapy.org

European Music Therapy Confederation: https://www.emtc-eu.com/#top-welcome

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Agnieszka Kloc

Agnieszka Kloc

I’m intent on being a sensitive human being. / Bookworm. Enthusiast of music & psychology. PhD candidate.