One weeps hearing Beethoven, another hearing Bon Jovi, almost everyone is on the dance floor when Queen is played. Music touches people. When one’s current favorite song is on the radio, for five minutes the world is in order. Music has direct access to emotions, it is an integral part of human history. All people have this feeling for music, aside from a few with rare neurological diseases. Those who create music themselves can even alter the brain. For professional musicians, this can be seen in brain scans: the corpus callosum which connects the two hemispheres is in their brains clearly thicker. Most obvious is the difference when they had already as small children learned to play an instrument.
Evidence: music can help heal
This effect of music has also been made use of for some time by doctors, because there is always more and more evidence that music can help heal. Systematic reviews of recent times show that people with different diseases can benefit from hearing music, whether singing or playing. This includes those suffering autism, depression, schizophrenia, brain injury and a whole host of other diseases. With regard to cancer alone, 30 studies involving over 2,000 volunteers have been examined recently. For some it was a matter of making music, for others it was enough to listen. In both cases the conclusion went as such: music can probably improve anxiety, mood, pain and quality of life.
Success using music therapy can probably also be achieved with mental illness – at least when employing the correct dosage. In one review, scientists working under Christian Gold at the Grieg Academy Music Therapy Research Centre in Bergen looked at a total of fifteen studies with 300 patients. About two-thirds suffered from psychosis, a third were depressed. As part of music therapy, patients played instruments themselves, sang, improvised, wrote lyrics and reflected on their content. The authors of the study emphasised that music therapy can have a strong and significant effect on general symptoms such as depression, anxiety, or social involvement, if used regularly. Between 16 and 40 hours of therapy should be the amount, the authors of the study conclude.
Irish dance tune in the operating room
Other studies have suggested that the autistic can become more communicative with the help of music. Alzheimer’s patients are said benefit from singing together, which breaks down their aggressions, retrieves memories and develops emotional robustness. How people react to music depends also on the melody. Thus, the German neuroscientist Stefan Koelsch before and during surgery had music played to patients including happy pieces such as the “Allegro” from Bach’s Fourth Brandenburg Concerto, or an Irish dance tune. The music calmed his patient, concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol dropped and patients needed less of the anaesthetic propofol.
A very different kind of music therapy was tested recently on tinnitus patients. The Christo Pantev working group at the University of Muenster every day for about a year treated eight subjects for one to two hours with their favorite music. First however, they filtered out the frequencies in the tinnitus tone range, because due to their hearing impairment the patients can no longer perceive a particular sound frequency range. The problem here was that they kept believing that they were hearing this missing tone range whenever the brain was processing adjacent frequencies. Music therapy should help in making a reversal to the faulty switching going on in the auditory cortex of the brain. The first results make the researchers hopeful that the tinnitus tone can at least be attenuated.
Tinnitus: a similar sound produced
In a three-year research project running at the University of Muenster, the process will now be developed further. The Viktor Dulger Research Institute at the German Center for Music Therapy Research Association in Heidelberg has developed a similar therapy. Using a synthesizer, the researchers reconstructed a tinnitus-like sound tone which was then played to the patient. Via personalised tone sequence, the overactive nerve cells are supposed to be able to be calmed and disfavourable connections between neurons severed. Further attempts will be needed to show whether the methods meet the criteria of evidence-based medicine and whether patients really benefit long term from it.