In 1374 a malady called “dancing mania” swept through Europe on the heels of the plauge. “Entire communities,” says at text on the subject, “joined hands, screamed and shook for hours on end until they dropped from exhaustion. It was thoroughly infectious and no medicine was known at that time that had any effect on the addicts. Music was found to be the only means of checking it. The authorities of many towns ordered soft, slow soothing music to be played in the streets and market places; gradually the dancers became normal and the strange contagion was arrested.”
Yet music was being used for medical purposes long before the Middle Ages. The Bible tells of how King Saul, upon whom the “evil spirit of God” had descended, was refreshed after hearing David plays the harp. (Dr. Jean-Robert Leonidas, an Instructor in Medicine at State University of New York Downstate Medical Center, speculates that Saul was relieved by the music because he may have suffered from an asthma-like condition and research has shown that listening to relaxing music decreases the lungs’ resistance to the flow of air.) Following World War II the military included music in its treatment programs for wounded, disabled, and “shell-shocked” veterans, and by the 1950’s the use of music in medicine was sufficiently widespread that a new profession–music therapy–had come into being. According to Janet Cook, a Texas researcher interested in the effects of music on health, music therapy involves the use of music as an “aid in the treatment of psychological, phychological, or social aspects of an illness or disability.” There are more than 2,000 registered music therapists practicing in the United States today, many in large medical centers and hospitals.
Positive Effects on People
Music therapy exists as a profession because researchers have shown that music exerts definite effects on the human body. Depending on the music used, music has been shown to raise or lower blood pressure as well as heart, breathing, and metabolic rates. It can also change the electrical conductivity of the skin and increase the body’s resistance to pain (in one study patients in pain were able to reduce their use of pain medication by an average of 30 percent while listening to music). One explanation proposed for these varied effects is that music may influence the release of endorphins (the body’s “natural painkillers”) and various “stress hormones”–including adrenaline.
Whether a given piece of music is stimulating or calming can depend on its nature. According to Janet Cook, high pitches create tension and low pitches relaxation, volumes too high or too low can be irritating, and tempos similar in pacing to that of the human heartbeat are soothing. Also important is the degree of pleasure a listener derives from the piece and the listener’s “musicality”: the greater a person’s enjoyment of music, the greater its effects will be. Almost anyone will respond in some degree to music, however, and if the music is “right” it can be put to good use. Music is currently being used as an aid in the reduction of pain and anxiety in dental and plastic surgery patients and with women in labor. It is being used to reduce cancer patients’ discomfort after chemotherapy and in the treatment of numerous mental and emotional disorders.
Stronger Evidence for the Great Treatment
An illustration of how music might be used to help in the treatment of depression is provided by Lucanne Magill Bailey, a certified music therapist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Explaining that music which initially matches a person’s mood is most beneficial, she says she would probably first play for the person “music characterized by minor key or solo instruments”–music that expresses the person’s sorrow. She would then progress gradually to music in major keys and with “lightly flowing melodies from groups of instruments and/or voices” in the hopes that the music would serve as a catalyst to help the patient begin to feel part of a community and to better communicate his or her feelings.
In addition to using it to help patients, many health care professionals are beginning to use music for their own benefit: a 1984 article from the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that music is being played in a growing number of hospital operating rooms because it “reduces tension, relieves tedium, and subliminally, can even help timing of intricate (surgical) movements.” But you don’t need to be a patient or a doctor to enjoy and to benefit from music. We have probably all felt soothed, refreshed, enriched, or uplifted by music that we like. As Robert E. McDermit, president of the Health Sciences Center Hospital at the University of British Columbia, has said: Properly chosen music “can help to calm anxiety, stimulate body movement, promote spiritual growth, recall comfort and security, focus attention, feed the imagination, counter irritation and facilitate personal expression.” “It can also,” he adds, “simply provide enjoyment and pleasure.”