Anyone who has ever made a breakup mix can testify to the therapeutic value of music. Now 21st-century science is catching up to what we suspected, sobbing to Elliott Smith alone in our bedrooms. Medical researchers are unlocking ever-expanding benefits to music therapy. Let's look at five ways it could help improve our mental and physical wellbeing.
What is Music Therapy?
Music therapy is having a cultural moment, but it's worth distinguishing the real from the hype. Before we look at applications, let's talk about what it is and how it works. Every day hardworking professionals are gathering verifiable data that proves these treatments are doing incredible and credible good.
If something works for you, cheers! I won't try to dissuade anybody from experimenting. But always consider what's backed by science and what's not yet proven.
Treatments vary widely but fall into two classifications: Receptive (listening based) and Active (creating/playing based). Researchers are still learning why they work, but a large part of the power seems to be how we neurologically process music.
Through neuroimaging, researchers have shown our brains light up when we hear music – not just your auditory cortex, but emotional responses in your cerebellum, memory centers in the hippocampus, motion reactions, and on and on. It happens across both the right and left hemispheres, and triggers enhanced sensory and emotional integration, and creative problem-solving.
There's also a host of biological reactions, including the release of dopamine, muscle relaxation and heartbeat regulation. We're talking about deep evolutionary responses, possibly related to how our ancestors adapted to environmental sound cues. Particularly receptive listeners can experience "frisson" – musical goosebumps triggered by the autonomic nervous system. Psychedelic, right? I may owe all those Deadheads an apology. They really can feel the music. It's worth noting that "bad" sound can have just as profound an effect on us. Look at the effects noise pollution has on us. I also recommend this INVISIBILIA episode about Bernie Krause, a ’60s synth session player who became a pioneer in sound ecology.
1. Clinical Music Therapy
Education is extensive for certified musical therapists. The American Music Therapy Association recognizes 80+ higher ed programs nationally. B.A.s require coursework, 1,200 hr. of clinical training, and board certification.
Today, music therapy plays a role in cancer treatments, aiding veterans dealing with PTSD, connecting with children with autism spectrum disorders, providing non-opioid pain management, reducing distress from chronic tinnitus, and stimulating memories for Alzheimer's patients and much more.
I'm fascinated by the story of how music therapy has played an integral role in Congresswoman Gabby Gifford's rehabilitation from the traumatic brain injury she suffered at the hands of a gunman a decade ago.
During the age of Covid, music therapy has also been a powerful tool for helping those suffering from anxiety and depression. This study used PET scans to show meditative music measurably reduced anxiety and heart rates. Virtual sessions are proving effective, and many practitioners are uploading sessions to Youtube if you're curious about trying it for yourself.
2. Meditative Music Apps
We're way beyond whale sounds. The mindfulness boom has led to numerous partnerships between big-name artists and meditation apps. Headspace has brought in John Legend, Erykah Badu, St. Vincent, Hans Zimmer and Madlib for their Focus music series. Calm features tracks from a chaotic mix of people: Keith Urban, Moby, Sigur Ros, Ariana Grande and deadmau5. I have sampled some of these celeb chillout tracks, and I can't say you need to run out and grab a subscription to just hear them. I do love guided meditation but prefer to go old school. Traditional Tibetan bowls and throat-singing feels like what I'm supposed to listen to while emptying my mind. I also recommend the much-loved LoFi Hip Hop channel on YouTube.
There are newer apps with increasingly lofty claims. Like Sona – "the first artificially intelligent music therapist." I tried the trippy Lumenate – which combines music with "consciousness shifting stroboscopic lights" to trigger your subconscious and simulate the altered state of feeling high. Just close your eyes and flip around your phone's backlight. While not transcendental, I enjoyed the mellow spacey synths and soothing inter-lid light show. Try for yourself (those with migraines or epilepsy should avoid).
3. Sleep Music
I'm one of 70 million Americans who suffer from sleep disorders. If music can lower both anxiety and heart rate, it follows it should help us sleep. Again, Headspace, Calm and tons of other apps offer musical playlists designed to help you drift off. There are thousands of long-form playlists out if you want your music to play all night. There are even pillows with built-in speakers if you can't get comfortable on your JAM5.
While soothing, I haven't found anything I personally like as much as plain white noise or crashing waves. I find good ambient music hard not to dial into and bad ambient music impossible to ignore. I'm reminded of the French composer Erik Satie, who wrote "furniture music" in the early 20th century. These minimalist compositions were meant to disappear into the background of parties or meals and later influenced John Cage and Brian Eno.
Let's try going deeper.
4. Brainwave Music
OK, this is the more experimental end of music therapy. Your brain has a rhythm – brainwaves are the electrical pulses of your neurons firing. Different frequencies are associated with specific mental states and levels of consciousness.
Gamma (30-80 hertz): Intense concentration and alertness
Beta (15-30 hertz): Normal awake and analytic
Alpha (9-14 hertz): Meditative calm
Theta (5-8 hertz): Liminal state between waking and sleeping
Delta: (1.5-4 hertz) Deep sleep
Biohackers are interested in creating musical soundscapes that sync brain activity to a specific range. It's not as far-fetched as you might think. This study compared the EEG brainwaves of trained musicians and non-musicians. The research showed that the musicians had significantly higher beta waves while performing complex, non-musical tasks. They also showed more elevated amounts of alpha waves while relaxing.
If you skipped piano lessons, you can try different "brainwave entrainment" for yourself.
A single-tone played at a regular interval. It's like an on-off pulse, most often built underneath natural or ambient soundscapes. I tried listening to pure isochronic tones to meant trigger delta waves, but it was more numbing than calming.
You'll need headphones for these to work correctly because binaural means a slightly different frequency is played in each of your ears. Theoretically, your brain will combine them and then lock them into something in the middle to dial in your brainwaves. I find them beautiful and restful, but without being hooked up to an EEG, I can't say for sure if my neurons were firing differently. Here is a good overview if you want to learn more about what is and isn't happening as you listen to binaural beats.
5. We're Not Alone
Countless musicians have spoken about feeling no pain when on stage. Concertgoers feed off that energy, and collectively we’re transported to a revelatory state. It can be euphoric or heartbreaking depending on the show, but what’s more healing than that togetherness? You can be isolated in the middle of nowhere, but a single song can speak across the distance.
A recent study seems to confirm what we music fans have always believed on a metaphysical level. The researcher tracked the brain activity of both a violinist and people watching their performances later. Their brains literally synchronize — at the neuron level. The more familiar the piece of music, the more in tune they become.
I consider “entertainer” and “artist” to be high callings. But they seem too small of words for the immensity of what musicians and songwriters bring to our lives. It’s the everyday magic of connection. From joy to rage, love to loss, music can pass emotion and experience back and forth. And we know, whatever we are feeling, we’re not alone.
That’s life-affirming in the purest possible way. We all need something to hold on to against the dark. Rock ’n’ roll really did save me when I was young and lonely. It’s humbling to think music in all its endless rearrangeable forms has been doing the same across cultures for all of history.
It proves we are more alike than different. I can’t think of anything we need more than that right now.