The Healing Power of Music

by Dr Shirley Lorenzani

Grocery list in hand, you park the shopping cart and select a bag of juicy red apples. Yippee, it’s finally your turn to host the Monday night football party! Suddenly, an “oldie but goodie” comes over the sound system. Wow, that was your favorite song from senior year! The supermarket interior gradually fades from view and you’ve reappeared, decades back in time. Lights are dim in the high school gym, multicolored streamers hang from the ceiling and friends are encircling you, laughing and touching. Your hips subtly gyrate and one foot starts tapping. Should you full out dance right here in the produce section?

Another day, you’re feeling low and don’t know why. Driving down the highway, a melancholy ballad comes over the radio and your thoughts immediately go to your sister who died last year. Tears begin to blur your vision. You find a place to pull off the road and sob.

These are examples of music therapy. “It’s your Comforter when you’re down, your Buddy when you’re up,” blues musician Charles Musselwhite recently declared in an interview on PBS. He was referring to the blues, but all genres of music can have that effect. It can get down with us, nudging therapeutic emotional release, or soar with us to the emotional heavens, bringing even more joy. As it works this magic, it can also bring physical healing.

Music therapy sounds New Age, contemporary, a little way out, but it’s actually the opposite. When King Saul was suffering, back in Biblical times, whom did he summon for relief? Not his herbalist or favorite massage therapist. David, a young shepherd known for his skill with the harp, was called to court. As a result of that live musical performance, “Saul was refreshed and was well” (I Samuel 16:23).

Modern music therapy was birthed as a profession during World II. In Allied hospitals, it was evident that healing was boosted and depression levels lowered among wounded troops after musical entertainers performed. Glen Miller was a famous American musician who lost his life while working as a wartime music therapist.

Raymond Bahr, M.D., St. Agnes Hospital, says, “Half an hour of music produces the same effect as 10 milligrams of Valium.” How can music act as powerfully as a drug? We may not know all the mechanisms, but studies show that it alters our physiology. These improvements can occur simply from listening to music played at a reasonable volume:

  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Reduces cardiac complaints
  • Increases immune function
  • Boosts levels of natural pain-reducing opiates
  • Lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol

Gosh, it seems as if music is medicine that we ingest through our ears! I welcome all these benefits, especially because they aren’t paired with any of the negative side effects that can tag along with many drugs.

In terms of hypoglycemia, that last one – lower levels of stress hormones – is really important. When we experience ongoing stress, our adrenal glands are prompted to release cortisol. If that release happens too frequently, blood sugar regulation problems are one unpleasant result. That’s why relaxation techniques, such as conscious breathing, meditation and yoga, can assist with managing hypoglycemia. The next time you’re feeling shaky, tense, uptight and stressed out, remember that simply listening to music you enjoy – the most basic form of music therapy – can also make a quick difference in your inner self-management.

If you’re jazzed by this topic and want to learn more about the benefits of playing an instrument, singing, toning, chanting, humming, crystal bowls or personal music therapy sessions, here are three excellent books:

The Healing Power of Sound: Recovering from Life-Threatening Illness Using Sound, Voice, and Music, Mitchell L. Gaynor, M.D.

Music and Sound in the Healing Arts, John Beaulieu.

Music Medicine: The Science and Spirit of Healing Yourself with Sound, Christine Stevens.

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