Everyone self-medicates with music. If you’ve compiled a “chill out” or “melt your face” playlist, or belted out a tune in the shower, you’ve used music as a remedy.
It is only within the last decade or so that we have had the technology to develop hard evidence for how music affects our bodies and minds. With the emergence of modern neuroscience, things like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans are being used to map which parts of the brain are stimulated by music.
Music is one of the core elements of human experience. We have yet to find a culture that does not include music. A single song can elicit laughter, bring us to tears or move us to dance. Music has joined us together in celebration, galvanized our political causes with anthems and rally cries, let us reach ecstasy through religious chanting, and helped us to resolve grief and sadness.
The concept of sound as medicine can be traced back to ancient texts. The Indigenous people of Northern Australia used sound healing over 40,000 years ago with the yidaki, a wind instrument also known as the didgeridoo. Greek physicians used vibratory instruments to calm mental disturbances, help digestion and induce sleep. Ancient Egyptians used musical chants to heal the sick. Iranian Sufis have used sama or “deep listening” in Islamic ceremonies since the 10th century. And the Chinese used singing bowls and vocal chanting to improve physical well-being, psychological health, and achieve spiritual mastery. Singing bowls are still used today by music therapists.
Music therapy touches all aspects of the mind and body
According to Jennifer Buchanan, Executive Director, Canadian Association of Music Therapists, the concept of music therapy started to gel during the end of World War II. Hospitals were overcrowded and medication was scarce. In an effort to relieve the pain of their patients, nurses came up with the idea of bringing in musicians. “They found that music could distract and allay the pain for these young soldiers,” Buchanan explains. This opened the floodgates to experimentation with music as medicine.
Music therapists have an array of options for the patients or clients we’re working with because a tuning fork or a singing bowl may very well turn off a guy who is a CEO of a corporation who is looking to distract. That’s where getting to know our patients is important.
The youngest patient she’s ever worked with was two months old and the eldest was 104. Music therapists across Canada work with autistic children, students with learning challenges, youth at risk, the homeless, as well as with long-term-care and end of life patients. “There’s really not an area of healthcare where music therapy can’t hold some benefit,” says Buchanan.
Music has now been incorporated into treatment for cancer and has been used to recoup linguistic ability in stroke victims. It has been used to treat patients with dementia, Alzheimer’s and general memory problems. It has also been used for pain management, stress reduction, developmental delays, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even to improve the health of premature babies.
So how does it work? According to Buchanan, every music therapist is also a musician. Typically, they have a guitar, keyboard or kitted instrument. Buchanan explains that the live element is crucial because a lot of the practice is collaborative. In many cases, a therapist and patient are co-creating music.
One patient comes to mind when Buchanan thinks back to a time music helped de-escalate and supported sustained therapy. While working in a neuro-rehabilitation unit where people sustain brain injuries, a severely troubled man who spent most of his adult life living on the street came in with a gaping head wound and concussion. She was tasked with keeping him in hospital long enough to heal.
She describes him as a wildly looking man who was unresponsive. “You’re looking around the room and trying to find any identifiers,” she explains, referring to clues for which musical approach to take. “I was making the assumption that he was probably a Bob Dylan or an Eagles sort of guy,” she admits. When she sat down and asked him what he liked, he named classical music, which caught her off guard.
As Buchanan strums Pachelbel’s Canon, she tells her story, “He just closed his eyes and he laid his head back and I was able to play for quite a bit. I saw his breathing start to slow, and as his breathing slowed, I slowed with him. At the end, I got a ‘thank you.’ We were able to go from there. We were able to talk about how he was feeling and why he wanted to leave. Eventually we started making more music together over the weeks that I would see him. He would actually play with me and interact. He would sing with me. And it was something that we both began to really look forward to.”
Beyond instrumental music, I asked Buchanan if she ever incorporated some of the more traditional sound healing tools like tuning forks or singing bowls into her practice. “I remember when I first started, that was all thought of as the new age music that was happening,” she says, “There is more integration now. Music therapists have an array of options for the patients or clients we’re working with because a tuning fork or a singing bowl may very well turn off a guy who is a CEO of a corporation who is looking to distract. That’s where getting to know our patients is important.”
Expertise in music therapy is developed empirically. Students must complete, at minimum, an undergraduate degree in music therapy, a 1000-hour internship and a board certification exam. They also spend years of testing and learning to hone their intervention techniques.
Buchanan has been a practicing music therapist since the early ‘90s. When she got her music therapy degree in 1991, she didn’t expect to spend the next 30 years in this field. “Here I am 30 years later still with questions, still feeling curious about it. There’s a lot more research to do.”
With this mode of therapy having been in practice since the ‘40s, it’s a wonder there is not more research on the subject. “I think the dilemma is that in so many ways music is not a quantifiable art. Music is something we don’t want to put into a box.”
The use of sound as medicine preceded our understanding of why. We are just beginning to look at it through the Western scientific lens. Will putting science behind the art be the day the music dies? Probably not, because we are already using science to inform musical composition.
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Free-improvisation music, which emerged in the 1950s with musicians like John Cage, nods to Freud’s psychoanalytic technique of free association. Bands like Sigur Ros develop soundscapes deliberately meant to deliver chills and tingling sensations to listeners through a process called “auditory looming.” They have even started including large-scale sound baths at their concerts. Tom Middleton, after years of studying music and sleep, designed an album of magical ambient music titled ‘Sleep Better’ — you may have heard his music in the Calm app. Many Spotify listeners reported ambient tracks topping their 2020 Wrapped reports. Not a surprising reflection to find in the data mirror after the year we’ve had.
A better understanding of how we react to sound could help make creating more satisfying mixes that play directly to the experience of listening possible. Like creating an emotional xylophone.
There is a device in music theory called an appoggiatura (also called a “leaning note”) which causes a reaction in the brain that is instrumental in making a song sad. Many classical composers, including Mozart, were fond of this device. An example of this occurs in Adele’s “Someone Like You” in the little vocal dip on the word “you”. It also occurs at the beginning of the song “Yesterday” by The Beatles.
Sound may even have the capacity to alter wood instruments over time, giving them a “character.” This phenomenon is mostly anecdotal, but repair and guitar-building luthiers, as well as many musicians, believe acoustic guitars “open up” with age and playing. Just one more reason to covet Jimi Hendrix’s Izabella Strat or Joni Mitchell’s long lost ’56 Martin D-28.
Music theory married with sound science has opened up the prospect of custom song prescription. A new AI-based technology measures biometric data to create customized, therapeutic soundscapes to treat mental and physical ailments. Perhaps there will one day be an iteration of a smartwatch that can take your vitals and spit out a custom song for you at any moment.
Sound science is starting to make waves in many other areas
We already use ultrasound to help diagnose and treat diseases and conditions, as well as to destroy stones in the kidneys and bladder. Ultrasound could potentially be used in neurology to help with depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia. It could even be used to target and destroy cancer tissues in a much less invasive procedure, shattering cancerous cells like a glass.
The Cymascope, an instrument developed in 2002, converts sound into 3D geometric images, essentially making sound visible (we recommend the humpback whale sonar). This device can also be used to compare a healthy cell to a cancerous cell through its sound imprint. Scientists are seeing geometric patterns in cymascope images that closely resemble early life forms, like the trilobite and the starfish. David Suzuki thinks the cymascope could possibly offer a new way to study evolutionary biology.
We know that many animals use vibrations to communicate. Darwin wrote about how many species use sound in courtship. Elephants use vibrational cues to predict weather. Blind mammals like the Namib Desert golden mole or bats use vibrational communication to detect and capture prey.
A better understanding of how animals communicate could help us to establish helpful techniques for people with disabilities. Daniel Kish, a man who has been blind since early childhood, is able to “see” with sound by making clicking sounds like a bat to create visual images that allow him to navigate.
Even plants use vibration to communicate. In 2012, researchers from the University of Western Australia used vibration measurement apparatuses on grain seedlings. They registered roots crackling at a frequency of 220Hz. When this happened, the roots and seedlings not directly involved in the experiment reacted by orienting their tips in the direction of the frequencies, essentially “listening” to their friends.
According to Peter Wohlleben, German forester and author of The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, research in the field reveals that when trees are really thirsty, they “scream.” (This happens at ultrasonic levels, so we can’t hear it.) Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research explained that vibrations occur in the trunk when the flow of water from the roots to the leaves is interrupted. The “screaming” signals to other trees to support it.
Further research into sound science could have great potential for furthering our understanding of medical diagnosis and therapy, unraveling evolutionary biology, and understanding how non-verbal creatures and organisms communicate.
Sound healing is still quite esoteric, but further study could unlock a myriad of possibilities. Let’s keep an ear to the ground.