The idea that music has healing powers occurs in almost every culture and goes back to ancient times. Apollo was the god of both music and healing. Hippocrates is said to have played music to help treat his patients. In the Old Testament, King Saul’s fits of depression were alleviated by the music of young David.
Much research has confirmed that music has psychological and physiological effects. While scientists can now see via medical imaging some of the changes in the brains of people listening to Beethoven or Elvis, music is a very complex stimulus, and the ways it works on us remain largely elusive.
Music therapy—the use of music to address physical, psychological, cognitive and/or social problems — now plays an accepted role in modern medicine, for children as well as adults. Some colleges and universities offer degrees in music therapy, several organizations provide certification in the field, and many hospitals offer the therapy to patients. There are different approaches to music therapy, which can be done one-on-one or in a group, can use instrumental or vocal music, and can involve just listening to music, moving to it, or actively making it.
Music therapy has been used as an adjunct treatment for everything from strokes and various types of chronic pain to dementia and other neurological disorders. Some of the best evidence concerns the use of calming music for anxiety disorders and depression, as was discussed in a 2011 review paper in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry. Two years earlier, a Cochrane analysis of 23 clinical trials concluded that music can have a beneficial effect on blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, anxiety, and pain in people with heart disease. pain in people with heart disease.
Music is also sometimes used for short-term goals—for instance, to help alleviate anxiety and pain (which can be exacerbated by anxiety) in patients before and after surgery, as well as to help them feel less nervous when undergoing procedures such as colonoscopy. In part, music may simply distract people from their pain and other symptoms. Up-tempo music can be used to motivate and energize people during physical or occupational therapy—or just during a conventional exercise program.
Of course, taste in music varies, and what enthralls one person may be just noise to another. Some research suggests that classical music is best for stress reduction, heart rate and blood pressure, though this may, in part, relate to the age and tastes of the researchers who did the studies. If you don’t like Bach or Mozart, it won’t help you much as you go into the operating room (though it may help the surgeon). So one prerequisite, of course, is to have people choose music they like. Some individuals don’t care for any music, and for them silence may be the best treatment.
Bottom line: You don’t need to have a reason to listen to or make music other than the pleasure or catharsis it gives you. But if it also helps you deal with pain and anxiety, lifts you out of depression for a while, helps you with some other physical or psychological problem or motivates you to exercise, more power to it. Unlike new drugs or medical procedures, music needs no government approval or clinical trials—it’s usually free or inexpensive, and can’t hurt even if it fails to help. If musical self-help isn’t enough, consider asking your health care provider about more formal music therapy.