Psychophysical effects of music

What is music therapy? Is it a kind of “alternative” thing?

When referring to music, we usually think of a structured, organized art form. Our idea of music mainly involves aesthetics, but when listening to it we not only admire its beauty. We love music because it moves our emotions.


Let’s look at the therapeutic possibilities of music from another perspective. We are all familiar with psychotherapy. Regardless of the approach (it could be cognitive, behavioral, psychoanalytic, gestalt), they all use language to elicit some reaction in the patient. We go to the psychotherapist and start talking about us, our fears, we tell our story; we try to resolve conflicts or find strategies, and all this just talking and thinking about what the therapist said.

Until recently, human beings were considered from a dualistic perspective, which means that mind and body were thought to be two separate entities. Neuroscience has questioned this view and shown that our mind is the astonishing product of our brain, that our thoughts are the result of a physiological process that involves some peculiar cells, the neurons. Emotions, according to this view, are biological programs that allow us to react to external and internal stimuli and are mediated by our nervous system, which includes our brain.

We know that emotions, perceived in our brain but also in our guts and body, modify our chemical balance (they activate or deactivate our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, regulate the production and release of hormones), so we can say that there is no separation between our mind and body.

Everyone knows that music has a strong effect on our emotions. We listen to music when we’re happy, sad, when we want to relax or get excited. Playing in a band, an orchestra or a choir is an incredible experience that makes us feel part of a whole, we strongly connect and synchronize with our partner musicians without any need to talk to each other, just playing or singing.

How this happens is still not completely clear from a scientific perspective, and I’d like to discuss it further one day, but for the moment let’s focus on a fact, which is that music directly influences our emotional state, and it does it even without the help (or the interference) of language.

Music Therapy is a discipline that uses music to obtain specific changes in our emotional and physiological state through active participation or receptive listening. There is a growing amount of scientific evidence to support this practices and over the years many different methodologies and approaches have been developed. Some, in my opinion, work better than others, some have more scientific evidence than others, but the overall results are impressive.

The interesting thing about Music Therapy is that you don’t have to be a musician or an expert to benefit from it. We are all musical. We have an innate musicality that doesn’t need to be professionally trained, it’s just part of us, and music therapy uses this musicality in a different way compared to what musicians usually do.

Just an example to clarify this essential difference between musical education and performance and Music Therapy. Let’s say you join a Music Therapy session. At some point, the therapist invites you or the group to do an improvisation. But, wait, what if you’re not a musician? Well, it really doesn’t matter. As I said before, this discipline uses our innate ability to perceive and produce music, regardless of any culturally standardized structures and rules.

When sitting in a drum circle, people start playing their drums as they feel, expressing their emotional state without having to worry if they’re doing it right or not. Here, there is no right or wrong. The therapist can listen and evaluate what comes out and decide to lead the group towards a different emotion. He may try to synchronize the group, suggest some rhythmical patterns, more aggressive, then maybe more stable and reassuring and finally ending with a slow, relaxing rhythm. Without saying a word, a skilled music therapist can guide a person or a group through a whole series of different emotions, and the end result is astonishing.

Of course, depending on the situation the therapist will use different techniques to get the desired outcome. If a client arrives anxious at a session, a guided imagery technique may be a good starting point to bring anxiety levels down. I will talk more about all the possibilities that these methodologies offer related to various conditions (anxiety, depression, pain, autism of course and many more).

In recent years the therapeutic use of music has been implemented also in hospital settings. Here in Barcelona, for example, a Music Therapy team works in the Palliative Care Unit at the Hospital del Mar. Patients in this unit are facing their most difficult moment, they are approaching the end of their journey, and Music Therapy turned out to be an invaluable tool to improve their lives in such a complex situation. It is also used in Intensive Care Units, and studies have shown it helps diminishing anxiety and physical pain, with a consequent reduction in the use of medicaments. When music therapy is offered before radiotherapy, patients report less anxiety and fear. Studies also report that Music Therapy affects blood pressure, respiratory and heart rate.

Music is part of our being human. We are a musical species, and our ability to perceive, produce and manipulate sound and rhythm goes far beyond a simple (though enriching) aesthetic experience. It modifies our mental, emotional and, consequently, our physiological state.
Curious about music therapy. Drop me a line through my contact form and I’ll answer all your questions!

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