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The Healing Power of Music

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“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”

Bob Marley sang these words back in 1973 and they still ring true today. For many of us, music is a source of comfort during difficult times. It can invoke memories and inspire feelings of happiness or sadness. But can music actually help to heal us when we are sick?

The notion of using music to improve physical, mental and spiritual well-being is not a new one. According to the American Music Therapy Association, the concept of using music in a healing capacity dates back at least as far as the writings of Aristotle and Plato. Florence Nightingale, widely recognized as the founder of modern nursing, wrote about the value of music in the healing process her 1859 book Notes on Nursing, stating “The effect of music upon the sick has been scarcely at all noticed. In fact, its expensiveness, as it is now, makes any general application of it quite out of the question. I will only remark here, that wind instruments, including the human voice, and stringed instruments, capable of continuous sound, have generally a beneficient effect…’

In the almost 160 years since these words were written, we have come a long way in our understanding of the role of music in healing. This concept has continued to evolve over the years, with the organized clinical profession of music therapy beginning to take shape in the mid 1940s after World War II. Nurses and doctors found music to be beneficial in treating those who were suffering from physical and emotional trauma. By the 1970s, music therapy had become an established health profession.

It is important to note the distinction between clinical music therapy and the use of music as a therapeutic tool. In clinical music therapy, a credentialed music therapist uses music interventions to work with individuals to accomplish a specific goal. This work may be done one-on-one, in a group setting, or in clinical settings such as hospitals. However, we often see the presence of music in other capacities in a hospital setting. It is common to see an instrumentalist playing in a lounge, a patient listening to music on an iPod, or even a choir singing in a hospital lobby during the holiday season.

In recent years, researchers have explored the effect of clinical music therapy and other musical interventions in improving our health and well-being. Their findings to date have been promising.

A recent study from UBC found that music therapy can reduce agitation and irritability in patients Alzheimer’s disease. Music therapy has also been known to help individuals with Parkinson’s disease improve their gait and facilitate body movement.

The American Music Therapy Association cites numerous studies demonstrating the benefits of music therapy for individuals experiencing mental health concerns. Music therapy has been shown to decrease anxiety and agitation, increase motivation, improve self-image, and enhance interpersonal relationships.

A study from the University of Helsinki found that listening to music helped to enhance the cognitive recovery and mood of patients who had experienced a stroke. In a 2015 article published by The Lancet, researchers reviewed 73 studies on the effects of adults who listened to music after various surgical procedures. They found that music had helped to reduce pain and anxiety and improve patient satisfaction.

From chronic pain management to substance abuse treatment, it seems like the potential to use musical interventions to improve our health and well-being is limitless. While more research is needed to fully explore the relationship between music and its impact on our health, this important work will help us harness the healing power of music and use it to its full potential.

With summer now in full swing, be sure to take some time for yourself to enjoy music. Put on some calming music while meditating, dance to your favourite playlist, or pick up that old guitar collecting dust in the corner – no matter how you enjoy music, make a point of taking a break from your daily routine to make some time for it.

At The Vic Foundation, we are excited to bring the therapeutic benefits of music to our hospital next month with CJNU 93.7 FM. On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for the entire month of September, we are presenting The Vic Foundation by Request: a special afternoon segment featuring requests from patients at The Vic and our clients at Victoria Lifeline. Best of all, patients will have the opportunity to listen live to their requests and enjoy an afternoon of nostalgia radio.

Erin Girouard is the Communications & Public Relations Manager at Victoria General Hospital Foundation. This article is meant to be informational in nature and should not replace the advice of a trained healthcare professional.