Groove to Your Music and Heal!

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

Grab your MP3 player, put in your favorite soothing CD, sit back, relax, and let the power of music heal you! Music therapy has gained traction as a healing medium throughout the world of medicine. The right music can soothe and aid in healing and comfort, even for people with advanced illnesses. However, the wrong music can be stressful; it’s important to learn what music works for you.   

Bach or Rock: The Power of Tuning In to the Right Tune

Many years ago, when my mother was dying from complications of diabetes and cancer, she asked that we play soft Celtic music for her. The sounds resonated with her Irish background, and she always seemed comforted by the sounds and songs dear to her.

The experience left an impression on me. After my mother’s passing, I often suggested to patients that they include music into their personal healing strategies as well as when they provided care to a loved one. In such situations, complementary forms of support – whether nutritional, spiritual, or musical – can frequently make a difference.

To learn more about how music can make a difference, I contacted one of the leading experts in the world, Barbara Reuer, Ph.D., former president of the American Music Therapy Association, a 5,000-plus member organization dedicated to developing therapeutic applications of music in rehabilitation, special education, and community settings. 

Whether you like Bach or rock, stop and think for a moment about how your favorite music affects you, Dr. Reuer told me. 

“It can excite you, or relax and calm you, or lower your blood pressure, or make you happy or sad,” she said. “When you go to a concert, the music transports you to another world. There’s great power in music. It reaches deeply, beyond psychoses and pain, to connect with the soul of people, open avenues of communication and emotion that may be otherwise closed, or exert a significant healing influence.”

As examples of how music can deeply touch people, she recalled these striking situations during her nearly forty years of experience as a music therapist:

Scene # 1:  The bedroom was dark. Light hurt the eyes of the woman in bed, dying of a brain tumor. She could no longer read or watch television. But she enjoyed listening to the throbbing, melodic Peruvian Indian village music playing on a CD player. As the music played, she felt better, with less pain.

Scene # 2:  In her room at a convalescent home, a 68-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s disease sang along to, “You Are My Sunshine.” Normally, she would be withdrawn and not recognize people or places. But she remembered the words of this song and others from her past. The songs would ignite cognition and for a time she would connect: remembering things, recognizing her spouse in the room, and also singing along.

Scene # 3:  Depression, pain, and leukemia dominated the life of an 8-year-old girl; however, she perked up when she sang children’s songs, or when she listened to the tapes she and the therapist recorded together. Afterward, she always seemed less anxious and less in need of pain medication. 

Scene # 4:  A 5-year-old boy with cerebral palsy and severe speech deficiencies came to a community music school. In the beginning, he would hide fearfully behind the piano, afraid to participate, but then he changed. He would play gleefully with the xylophone and the glockenspiel, especially when he heard train songs. Music touched him, opened him, and helped his speech and coordination, his mother said.

Scene # 5:  J was a medic deployed several times to Iraq and Afghanistan. He witnessed severe combat injuries to comrades, and personally suffered a traumatic brain injury from an improvised explosive device. His injury and post-traumatic stress left him challenged to carry out simple daily activities when he returned to civilian life. His effort to integrate has been marked by substance abuse, extreme anger, isolation, and even multiple attempts at suicide. J was angry, sad, scared, and at the end of his rope when he was introduced to a music therapist. While he still struggles, he is quick to tell anyone that music therapy, learning to play an instrument (particularly reggae), and writing songs, not only gave him an opportunity to find enjoyment and comfort during a dark time, but allowed him to trust people again. “Music therapy saved my life,” he says

Music In Past and Present Healing

Nobody knows for sure how long music has been used for health and healing purposes. Thousands of years ago, India’s golden Vedic civilization produced an elaborate system of music to create healing and balancing influences in individuals. Known as classical Indian music or Gandharva, the system also included specific melodies − or ragas − to be played at precise times of the day. One raga, played early in the day, can stimulate energy and dynamism, one played at night promotes restfulness. The ancient Greeks, Persians and Hebrews also studied and applied music as therapy for a variety of illnesses.

In modern times, music therapy was employed at Veterans Administration hospitals in the 1940s as a rehabilitation aid for World War II American soldiers. Since then, interest in medical applications of music in the U.S. has grown steadily into a formal discipline supported by extensive research and professional training. Since the 1990s, music therapy has been widely applied and integrated into the medical mainstream, and is often used in hospital and assisted living settings.

Noted New York University neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, M.D., the physician who wrote “Awakenings,” the book later turned into a popular 1990 movie, has long championed the application of music in medicine and has used music in his treatment of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

“Music brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can,” he says.  

Research has increasingly shown that music indeed exerts positive effects for a wide variety of physical, emotional and social problems. According to Dr. Reuer, here are some of the most successful applications: 

  • In hospital medical and critical care units.  
  • In physical rehabilitation therapy for stroke and cardiac patients.
  • Decreasing chemotherapy side effects such as nausea, vomiting and anxiety.
  • Alleviating pain; some reports suggest the need for pain medication and sedatives can be reduced by up to 30 percent.
  • Before surgery, to lower patient anxiety and stress, and reduce the amount of anesthesia needed.
  • Prior to childbirth, to relax fearful and anxious women, and help shorten labor time.  
  • For caregivers dealing with dementia to provide a way to interact socially and emotionally with affected individuals; music stimulates singing, dancing, touching, feelings, emotions, memories, and awareness of others.
  • At the end of life, as an aid to frail, elderly individuals living in nursing homes to alleviate stress, insomnia, depression and feelings of isolation; music is very comforting in hospice situations for both dying individuals and their families.  

Different Notes for Different Folks

There is no doubt that music exerts a powerful influence over physiological and emotional responses. But what kind of music is the most effective? The answer is: different strokes for different folks. 

“Music therapists have learned that music that is preferred by an individual is the music that gets the best results,” Dr. Reuer explained. “It could be music that was popular during a person’s young adult years, or music used in religious services, or music that was part of an ethnic or community culture. Conversely, music, which played no part in a person’s life, may have no healing or rehabilitative effect. In fact, such music may be offensive and have negative effects.”

She offered some examples:

“Listen to ‘Star Wars Imperial March’ which for some people can be unsettling, and cause anxiety.

“For some, k.d. lang’s version of the Roy Orbison classic ‘Crying,’ could cause sadness or even anger, evoking the emotions of a past relationship.

“‘Amazing Grace’ can be soothing or unsettling. With bagpipes, such as at the 9-11 memorial, it might create a different kind of emotion than with a vocalist.

“‘Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony’ can be so uplifting and sublime, yet if you don’t like classical music, you won’t enjoy it, and it won’t likely have a healing effect on you. 

“For me, Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ is emotionally supportive, but for someone who fought in Vietnam, and who later saw the movie ‘Platoon’ which featured the melody, it could trigger a whole different set of stressful emotions.

“So, individuality is the yardstick applied by music therapists. You have to feed the soul of the individual, and individuals are different, and have different associations with music.” 

In short, says Dr. Reuer, “You may experience relaxation by listening to The Beatles, but the same music might cause your neighbor’s blood pressure to rise.”

Engaging Seniors through Song – a Volunteer Program

Dr. Reuer is founder and director of, a consulting agency, and Resounding Joy, a non-profit organization that trains volunteers in recreational music programs –such as group drumming and sing-alongs − which are being offered at skilled nursing facilities and senior citizen centers. 

“There just isn’t enough of a supply of credentialed music therapists to meet the vast numbers of seniors, as well as people of other ages, who stand to benefit from music therapy,” she said. “We are trying to fill some of the demand for such services with our volunteers who definitely improve the social, emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being of individuals and communities through supportive and recreational music experiences.”

Her organization, now ten years old, has expanded its outreach program to seniors by training youngsters – aged 8 to 18 – as volunteers. They are learning songs from the 1940s and 1950s and learning how to engage people many years older than they are through music.

“We refer to our corps of volunteers as ‘Joy Givers,’ ” said Dr. Reuer, and “the kids among them as ‘Junior Joy Givers.’ The neat part is that everybody benefits, the givers and the receivers.”   

References & Resources:

© 2015 HeartMD Institute. All Rights Reserved.

Most Popular