For most of us, life feels better when we hear our favorite song.
That also can be the case for people with medical ailments.
Researchers are finding that music therapy can treat a wide array of conditions.
In recent years, studies have concluded that listening to music can help people with Alzheimer’s and autism. They have found it can also benefit patients who are recovering from surgery.
The treatment has become popular enough that now dozens of colleges are offering music therapy as a degree, and some states are now issuing licenses for music therapists.
Latest Study on Epilepsy
Earlier this month, a study concluded that music can help to prevent seizures in people with epilepsy.
Christine Charyton, Ph.D., an adjunct assistant professor and visiting assistant professor of neurology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, looked at the auditory cortex of the brain.
This cortex is in the temporal lobe of the brain, the same place where temporal lobe epilepsy originates. About 80 percent of epilepsy cases are classified as temporal lobe epilepsy.
Charyton’s team compared how music was processed in people with and without epilepsy.
They used electroencephalograms, which detect and record brainwaves using electrodes attached to the scalp.
Between 2012 and 2014, they collected data from 21 patients in the epilepsy monitoring unit at Wexner Medical Center.
On a random basis, they first monitored people listening to silence and then monitored them listening to either Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D major, andante movement, (K. 448) or John Coltrane's “My Favorite Things.”
They listened to the two songs arbitrarily, with a 10-minute silence period in between each one.
The researchers found significantly higher levels of brainwave activity in people when they were listening to music. Charyton noted that brainwave activity in the temporal lobes of people with epilepsy tended to synchronize more with the music than in those without the condition.
While she does not believe music should replace current epilepsy therapy, Charyton said this research suggests music might be a novel intervention used in conjunction with traditional treatment to help prevent seizures in people with epilepsy.
“This study is the first step to see if music could impact the brain,” Charyton told Healthline.
She explained that epilepsy patients synchronize — or have electrical activity in the brain — before a seizure.
“In our study patients with epilepsy synchronized to the music without having a seizure,” Charyton added. “We believe that music could potentially be used as an intervention to help people with epilepsy.”
Music Helps in Other Ways
Music therapy is also being studied in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
A 2010 study from Boston University School of Medicine found that Alzheimer's disease patients can better remember verbal information when it is provided in the context of music.
The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America also reports on its website that music can be a useful therapy in patients with Alzheimer’s disease and forms of dementia.
According to research posted on The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, our emotional response to hearing music can boost the release of dopamine, a brain chemical that is lacking in Parkinson’s patients.
In addition, the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) states that music therapy is also effective for treating people with autism, substance abuse disorders, mental health issues, and those in hospice care.
However, you don’t have to have a specific medical condition to benefit from music.
An August 2015 study published in The Lancet found that listening to music before, during and after surgery can lower pain, anxiety and the need for painkillers.
How Music Therapists Are Trained
What constitutes music therapy?
According to Al Bumanis, a spokesperson for the AMTA, putting on a patient’s favorite song may be an example of therapeutic music, but it’s not clinical music therapy.
Music therapists must have a bachelor’s degree or higher in music therapy from one of AMTA’s 72 approved colleges and universities, along with 1,200 hours of clinical training.
Official music therapists hold a MT-BC credential, which is issued through the Certification Board for Music Therapists. Four states also require licenses for board-certified music therapists.
Bumanis said there has become more public awareness of music therapy since it was used to treat former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords after she was shot in the head during an assassination attempt.
In fact, music therapy has roots that date back to the 1950s.
In the past decade, though, there have been more master’s and doctorate level degrees in music therapy emerging. Bumanis said there is more research and increasing acceptance of music therapy as an evidence-based practice.
“Interest in music therapy in the medical community and in popular culture has skyrocketed with the availability of technology that helps provide evidence of the impact of music on the body, the mind and the psyche,” said Darlene Brooks, Ph.D., who teaches music therapy at Temple University.
Her program was the first in the United States to offer a doctorate degree in music therapy.
Music Therapy as Integrative Medicine
Suzanne B. Hanser, Ed.D., who leads the music therapy department at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, added that music therapy also gained traction due to its place in integrative medicine, which takes into account the connections between mind, body, and spirit, and represents a holistic approach to health.
“As a result, music therapy services are increasing in medical centers and community clinics,” she told Healthline.
Hanser recently completed a yet-unpublished feasibility study. She examined the effects of music therapy interventions in a family medicine unit at an urban safety net hospital. This hospital assists patients with substance abuse, psychosis, and other chronic conditions.
“Music therapy interventions are showing success with these massive issues that affect physical health and mental status in many ways,” she said.