The evidence on music therapy

We’ve all heard the idiom, “Music is good for the soul.” But, according to the evidence, it’s good for your health as well.

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that children admitted to the emergency department who listened to music during routine procedures showed less distress and reported lower pain scores than those who didn’t listen to music.

The study included a total of 42 children aged 3 to 11 years who had an IV line placed. Half of them were randomly selected to listen to music selected by a music therapist during the procedure. Health care providers reported that it was easier to insert the IV line in children who were listening to the music;  health providers also reported more satisfaction with the placement compared to those who did not listen to music.

Want to Smile? Try Listening to Sad Music…

Sad music can evoke positive emotion because it often reminds the listener of romance. Romantic emotions are often positive because they evoke feelings of happiness and being in love.

The music is also often more sad than the listeners own life. It may appear more tragic or unhappy than how individuals felt while listening to it. This then helps to provoke a contradictory emotion (happiness) than what is displayed in the music.

sadness experienced in one’s life and music is very different. If sadness is occurring in your own life it is a direct threat to your emotional well being. If experienced through music, however, there is no threat and it is much easier to enjoy the negative emotions.

“Emotion experienced by music has no direct danger or harm unlike the emotion experienced in everyday life. Therefore, we can even enjoy unpleasant emotion such as sadness. If we suffer from unpleasant emotion evoked through daily life, sad music might be helpful to alleviate negative emotion,”

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What is it about music that is so compelling? And why does it spark such controversy?

Some people are morally opposed to certain types of music, while others are musically opposed. Occasionally someone will say that they hate a genre of music when they’ve never tried to appreciate it. Here are some tips to broaden your exposure to different types of music:
• Give new types of music a chance. Don’t decide you hate a genre after hearing one song. Maybe it’s just not a good song.
• Check out websites like Pandora or Spotify that play music based on a song or artist you like.
• Don’t just listen to the music. Listen to or look up the lyrics.
• Swap iPods for a few days with a friend, and then talk about each other’s music.
• Carry around a piece of paper or a notebook so you can write down the name or some lyrics of a catchy song you heard during your day.

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Does (instrumental) music influence speech processing in the brain?

First, we must limit ourselves to talking about instrumental training. Not singing lessons. This is not because singing couldn’t potentially improve speech (most evidence suggests it does) but because focusing on singing confuses our two interests (speech and music). Singing training involves heavy overlap with speech by virtue of the verbal content. So any impact of singing on speech processing could be partly explained by ‘within domain’ plasticity – and we are interested here in  ’cross domain’ plasticity.

The best type of evidence for the effect of music on speech is longitudinal (carried out over a long period – think months) and experimental. That means randomly assigning people to a music training vs. an active control activity (e.g. painting). If testing children then you also need a passive control group (one that takes no extra lessons) to rule out the effects of simple maturity on the brain.

Can musical training change the brain?

According to a new review by Dawn Merrett and colleagues (9th Sept 2013, Frontiers in Psychology) over 100 neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that musicians have different brains compared to groups of people who have had little or no musical training. Differences are found in anatomy, connectivity, and functional activity across a wide range of brain locations. So Dr Auerbach was right, at least we can assume that musicians’ brains are different…right?

Should we give up on music?

 There are a number of reasons to say no. Firstly, there was a signficant effect of both music and the environmental noise on pain compared to the control. This suggests that music (& similar sounds) may have an important role in pain management that we need to investigate further. Secondly, consider the study by Mitchell, et al. 2006 who showed that music has a superior analgesic effect compared to mental arithmetic.