Music is the best medicine!

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

Musical instruments… or should I say medical instruments?

Music therapy is the practice of using music to relax patients in hospitals. It started way back during World War I and World War II, when musicians visited veterans in hospitals all across the US. The idea caught on and now, according to the American Music Therapy Association, there are more than 5,000 licensed music therapists! What is it about music that helps people feel good?

According to Brian Jantz, a music therapist at Boston Children’s Hospital, it’s a love people are born with. He has helped many children in hospitals relax during scary procedures just with the strum of his guitar. “On the surface it works because, in some way, everyone relates to music,” Jantz said. “Music really is universal.” What goes on below the surface, though? What does music do inside of our bodies?

There is plenty of research that shows music makes us happy and healthy! Just ask psychologist Daniel Levitin, from McGill University in Montreal, for example. He wanted to get an in-depth understanding of how music affects our bodies, so he reviewed over 400 previous studies to see what the deal was. One study found that listening to music boosts our immune system! That’s right. Patients in the study had higher levels of a molecule called immunoglobin A, which help fight infections. In addition, they also had higher numbers of cells that battled harmful bacteria. Take that!

Oh, that’s not enough evidence for you? Well, wait until you hear about this next study. Researchers wanted to test anxiety in patients who were scheduled to go into surgery. Half of the patients were given anti-anxiety medicine, while the other half received musical melodies to calm their nerves. As you might have guessed, the patients who listened to music were much calmer than the people who took the medicine! Basically, they had significantly lower levels of cortisol, which is a hormone in our bodies that causes stress.

While music reduces cortisol, however, it also increases dopamine – a brain chemical that makes us feel pleasure and happiness! You know, the kind of pleasure we feel after a hearty meal or receiving a gift. According to Robert Zatorre, a professor at Montreal Neurological Institute, music’s effects on dopamine production is a good thing.

Researchers will continue to study how music affects the brain, and work on ways to create better therapies. “Knowing better how the brain is organized, how it functions, what chemical messengers are working and how they’re working – that will allow us to formulate treatments for people with brain injury, or to combat diseases or disorders or even psychiatric problems,” Levitin said. Wow, who would have guessed music could be such a serious way to improve our health?

As for the musical treatment that goes on in Boston Children’s Hospital, it’s important not to be too serious all the time! “There’s nothing wrong with having fun,” said Jantz. “That’s part of how it works.”

Featured image courtesy of Midiman on Flickr. Music therapy  image courtesy of