Music and health

Music is medicinal. You might expect a statement like this to come from someone in a drumming circle, a chanting crystal healer or sleazy record-label executive. But the idea that music can be used to for health and to heal the mind is increasingly grounded in scientific evidence – not theory. Recent studies show how people coping with Parkinson’s can learn to walk more easily when rhythms assist their gait. Other research suggests autistic children find social interactions become easier when accompanied by music, and that less anaesthetic is required when music is played to spinal surgery patients. Perhaps most astoundingly, premature babies gain weight quicker when they can hear music. Scientific studies – ranging from investigations of the brain at a cellular level, to psychiatric assessments of schizophrenics, to linguistic scores in stroke patients – are all leading to the same conclusion: music isn’t just a form of entertainment, it is evolutionarily significant. And the more we learn about the impact of music on the brain, the more we understand how it can be employed as a therapeutic intervention. So much to learn “I originally trained as a music therapist but when I went into practice 15 years ago, I found that so little formal research had been done on how or why it works,” says Prof Christian Gold of the Grieg Academy Department of Music at the University of Bergen in Norway. Gold studies how music therapy can help people with a wide variety of conditions, ranging from learning disabilities to schizophrenia and dementia. “I had planned to go back into clinical practice after spending a few years in research but 15 years later, I’m still researching. There’s just so much to learn.” A music practitioner plays for a stroke patient at Florida Hospital Oceanside (© Press Association) A music practitioner plays for a stroke patient at Florida Hospital Oceanside (© Press Association) Perhaps the most familiar notion of the power of music is the claim that listening to Mozart is good for your brain. But that only tells half the story. Listening to classical music (or any kind of music, even earworms) does have quantifiable impacts on aspects of cognition, such as visual puzzle solving. However, everything you do – solving puzzles, playing sports or training at home with an amazon balance disc, painting landscapes – has an impact on your brain. But nothing seems to anatomically, chemically and beneficially alter your brain the way music can. The grey matter, which is the outer layer of the brain that contains the synapses – the ends of the neurones where signals are relayed – thickens with musical training. Furthermore, the cerebellum, which is the wrinkly bulb at the back of the brain that’s crucial for balance, movement and motor control, is bigger in pianists. Neuroscientists have documented many other anatomical changes that come with musical experience but the most profound is thought to be the fact that the corpus callosum – a band of nerve fibres that connect the left and right hemispheres to each other – thickens. No-one is quite sure what helping the two sides of the brain to communicate with each other accomplishes, but 20 years after this discovery, nobody has found anything else that does this.