Story at a glance

  • A recent study allowed researchers to watch the changes that take place in the brain when music is played.
  • Scientists observed a switch from negative emotions to positive ones.
  • Music therapy has proven beneficial to those with anxiety, depression, dementia, autism and other mental conditions.

Have you ever listened to music and felt better? Its therapeutic power has been recognized ever since ancient times; the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras often prescribed music as "medicine."

Now, a recent study involving hyperscanning — a procedure that can simultaneously record the brain activities of multiple people (in this case, both a music therapist and a client) — has allowed researchers to both see and confirm the positive changes that take place in the brain during music therapy. Utilizing a dual-EEG (electroencephalogram, a test that detects electrical activity in the brain), the recording revealed the precise points when the sessions were successful — when the therapist and patient were in sync and "connected." It also captured the switch from negative emotions to positive ones, according to Medical News Today.

The research, led by professor Jörg Fachner and Clemens Maidhof of Anglia Ruskin University in the U.K., and published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, supports music therapy as beneficial to those with anxiety, depression, dementia, autism and other conditions. 

One successful patient is Joe Baber of Amelia County, Virginia. Baber was diagnosed with autism at age three, and it was difficult for him to communicate. Today, at 21, he plays the guitar at his church. 

Music therapy is a vital reason for his profound transformation.

“Having a disability can often feel isolating,” says Joe’s mom Sharon Baber. “But Joe has found music to be an avenue through which he can communicate successfully with others. As parents, I believe some of the greatest gifts we can give our children are experiences that help them grow and bring them joy. Music therapy has definitely been one of those beautiful experiences for our son,” says Baber.

“Engaging in music facilitates neuroplasticity; engaging in music activates cognitive, speech and motor centers,” explains Anna McChesney, director of Healing Sounds in Chesterfield, Virginia, where Joe attends a music therapy program. At Healing Sounds, board-certified music therapists “utilize individualized music therapy interventions to empower change,” McChesney says in an interview with Changing America.

“I think the power of music is not only about uplifting mood or calming our mind, but it also helps to identify those heavy and complex feelings, and that is exactly what makes us feel better,” says acclaimed concert pianist 

Marianna Prjevalskaya, who performs for audiences worldwide.

“Maybe in some way, it’s like talking to someone who is very empathetic, who can really understand how one feels, no matter how sorrowful or painful those emotions are,” says Prjevalskaya about the positive power of music.

She adds, “I’ve noticed this in my own experience how calm I have felt after playing Chopin and Mozart. I imagine music affects the listener in a similar way. I’ve seen very moving reactions after my concerts with members of the audience after listening to the music of these great composers.”

Esteemed UK-based conductor and music director James Ross, who has led concerts worldwide, says he has seen the profound healing effect of music, especially in post-conflict scenarios in Bosnia, Sri Lanka and Uganda, among other locations. 

In an interview with Changing America for this story, Ross says, “The preparation and execution of concert performances, and development of music institutions, especially if they include active local participation, offer multiple and deeper opportunities to progress reconstruction, develop collaboration, reconciliation, social normalization and community cohesion.” 

He adds, “Concerts can be delivered to a high quality without elaborate facilities, often using buildings or sites of symbolic importance to all community members. The process of preparation and performance is intrinsically collaborative; it creates a physical and emotionally shared space where the whole community can congregate regardless of social background, education, religion or other differences. The only requirement for audiences is a curious, open mind, and a willingness to sit in contemplative silence.” 

The importance of music therapy is seen as so vital that the National Institutes of Health recently awarded $20 million over five years to the Sound Health initiative to explore more broadly how music therapy can be used to improve well-being. According to the NIH, the potential is immense, with benefits that range “from early childhood development to end of life care, and a host of therapeutic interventions to treat the symptoms of stroke, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, autism, PTSD and pain.” 

As physicist Albert Einstein said about his love for playing the violin to uplift his spirits: “I see my life in terms of music. ... I get most joy in life out of music.” 

Published on Dec 09, 2019