Regardless of your country of origin, cultural background, sex, age or pretty much any distinguishing demographic factor you can think of, chances are that music has a valued place in your life… whether you are casual listener, an aspiring rock star, or an accomplished composer.
We all commonly use music to accomplish a variety of things in our daily lives; to alleviate boredom or break routine, to keep us company in moments of isolation or to provide us with a temporary boon to our spirits, but did you know that music has also been proven to have concrete health benefits and can even be used as treatment for various mental and physical health problems?
While it is difficult to ascertain when the notions of music as a healing agent first gained popularity, many trace the idea back to the writing of Plato and Aristotle. To quote Plato himself, "In order to take the spiritual temperature of an individual or society, one must mark the music." Modern day music therapy is thought to have developed after the first and second World Wars, when a wide variety of musicians volunteered at Veterans' hospitals to play for veterans suffering from various emotional and physical traumas. When doctors observed the improvement in patients as a result of the musicians' visits, they requested that musicians be hired by the hospitals on a more permanent basis. This led to the first Music Therapy degree program in the world, founded at Michigan State University in 1944. While still regarded as a relatively new science, music therapy has since grown to become a discipline practiced the world over.
Mental health professionals now commonly use music therapy to enhance other forms of more traditional therapy. From basic stress management to treating eating disorders and drug abuse, and from physical therapy to speech therapy, music therapy has proven to be highly beneficial. Techniques employed include song-lyric discussion, music and movement techniques, music as a source of relaxation and meditation, and music as a source of self-expression.
So how and why does music therapy work? Research is still considered to be in its infancy and the answers may vary depending on the technique employed and who you ask, but some hard scientific facts have been established. Using electroencephalographs (EEGs), scientists have demonstrated that that exposure to music has an immediate (and sometimes lasting) impact on brainwave patterns. Further medical research demonstrates that music exposure can alter levels of brain chemicals, such as serotonin, long known to play an important role with regards to our overall mood. Studies involving practicing musicians show that they commonly exhibit enhanced development of certain areas of the brain. Currently, music therapy is being used with Alzheimer patients, stroke victims and autistic children (to name just a few) with positive results.
For those of us who are fortunate to be relatively healthy, the benefits of music (therapy) should not be ignored. Even if you regard yourself as "musically challenged", regular exposure to music as a listener and/or (dare I say it?) a student will aid you in managing stress, enhance your memory and promote general good health and well-being.
Music has the power to engage our emotions. If you doubt it, then consider the impact of a Hollywood movie or television show without the musical score. At its best music can bring us joy, move us to tears, or even inspire outrage and serve as a call to action against injustice. At the very least, music provides a common ground and interest that can spark communication or the motivation to communicate with our fellow man. And that has to be considered "a good thing".