Medicine, it is thought, is a sterile field of soulless hospitals, bright white laboratories, and emotionless research into grim pathologies. The idea of the fundamentally emotional field of music being involved in medicine seems at odds with this view. It is true that it's widely accepted that music can influence moods and perform roles as diverse as inspiring troops and later comforting their bereaved families. Despite this, "music as medicine" seems a step too far for many people. Yet the evidence is coming to suggest that there are very considerable health benefits which stem from the use of music as medicine.
We have for some time now been aware that music can have a positive effect upon the brain, and the idea that learning an instrument is a great way to strengthen a young mind is quite widely supported. Similarly, there is a widespread belief that listening to music helps to improve concentration and spatial visualization ability. Would it be so strange, then, to find that music can have other therapeutic effects?
The Benefits of Music for Babies
As it turns out, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that music can indeed perform that role. For example, research conducted at Beth Israel Medical Center's Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine has shown that care for premature births in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) can be improved with the use of music. Lullabies, as well as instruments which mimic the sounds of the womb or the human heartbeat, all had positive effects on infant heart rates, quiet alertness, sleep, and suckling. Interestingly, different instruments had different strengths. In addition to this all music therapy also helped reduce stress in the parents.
In the strenuous and often unhappy conditions of NICUs, the effects for stress alone would be positive, but helping those most vulnerable of babies pull through is obviously a very positive thing.
Treatment of Stress and Pain
Extensive studies compiled by Daniel J. Levitin, PhD, at McGill University, have shown that healthcare can be quite significantly affected by the use of music, rhythms, and sound frequencies. Indeed he claims that not only does music improve the body's immune system, but it can have such a positive effect in reducing stress that it is equal to anti-anxiety medicine prior to surgical procedures.
Similarly, there has been work done at the University of Alberta and Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in Singapore which has provided evidence that music can be a powerful way to reduce pain among patients of all ages, and in turn making healthcare easier to deliver.
Because sound is made up of vibrations, attention has turned to the vibrations themselves in trying to understand music as medicine and to hopefully make more progress. Vibroacoustic therapy, where patients sit or lie on special mats and low-frequency vibrations are directed into the patient. There are already promising results in treating the symptoms of conditions like depression, fibromyalgia, and Parkinson's, and hopefully more results will be forthcoming soon. Incidentally, the similarly low frequency of a cat's purr is also known to have health benefits, especially in healing broken bones.
Although this is only a brief overview of the research, it is clear there is a good deal of evidence to suggest music has considerable medical applications beyond simply calming and comforting patients. In fact it could form a core part of treatment for some conditions and be a beneficial therapy in others.