Long before we can see or smell, we are stimulated by sound—our mother’s heartbeat, the vibration of our own movements and the hum of the world outside conduct the concert of the womb. As children, we’re introduced to language through rhyme and song. Later, we learn to express ourselves socially in rhythm, whether through dance or simply tapping our feet to the beat. In fact, it is said that music is the universal language that transcends all barriers.
But recent research indicates that music can not only surpass language or cultural obstacles, it is also a complementary healing tool that can help us hurdle physical and emotional challenges ranging from addiction to cancer.
Music therapy is gaining increasing popularity in the medical community and many hospitals now offer music therapy programs. Initial studies in this area have demonstrated that music can have a far-reaching impact on the brain. For instance, scientists now know that musical training helps children develop cognitive skills needed to excel in math and science, a revelation dubbed the “Mozart Effect.” French researchers discovered that music therapy significantly reduces pain and related anxiety in patients suffering from chronic back pain. Music positively influences the spatial abilities of people with traumatic brain injuries. The list goes on. But how does music therapy work?
“Music is a powerful tool to help bring balance back into our physical, emotional, mental, creative and spiritual systems,” says musician and composer Amy Camie. “It is a vibrational language to which every part of our bodies respond—with or without our conscious awareness.”
Camie stresses awareness in order to be in sync with the vibrational resonance imposed by one’s environment. This is known as “the entrainment principle,” in which two oscillating bodies align so that they vibrate at the same frequency, a physics phenomenon that occurs in chemistry, biology, astronomy and other sciences. In people, this process affects breathing, heart rate and brain wave frequency.
“When [the brain] is in beta frequency,” says Camie, “the thinking, cognitive mind-chatter can’t quiet down. Music allows alpha waves to increase.” Alpha increases are associated with relaxation and a decrease in the sympathetic nervous system (the one that makes you tense) and may stimulate the immune system.
Camie has not only witnessed the benefits of music therapy in hospitals and hospices, but also in her own family. In response to learning her father had prostate cancer, Camie recorded New Love: Awaken to Yourself, an instrumental CD featuring harp music. This collection of “expressions,” as she calls them, not only helped her father to focus on his own healing and remain cancer-free, but has also been shared with hundreds of cancer patients, military families, New York City firemen and their families after 9/11, and recent victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Peter Blum, a hypnotist who uses sound and music therapy in his practice, believes that music exerts a powerful healing force. “Psychologically, music and sound have a profound effect on the emotional state of the listener,” he says. “This is a trans-cultural phenomenon. Most ancient peoples who lived in tribal communities used songs, rhythms and melodies as part of the healing process. Music induces a state in which, with the proper intention, a person’s inner healer can be activated.” (For more information, go to www.soundsforhealing.com.)
Although we each hear a different drummer in terms of musical style preference, the sounds we are least attracted to or familiar with usually yield the most benefit. Camie maintains that familiar music tends to keep beta waves active due to memory association, while unfamiliar music induces more alpha waves. Sequencing is also of value: At times it is helpful to start out with music that matches the listener’s current mood and then gradually shift to music representing the desired emotional state.
But music therapy isn’t just about grooving to the tunes. According to Blum, “Sound therapy can be both passive and active. Every individual is different. When I work with people, sometimes I chant or drum, or play the flute or singing bowls for them, and at other times I will teach the client vocal or rhythm practices that they can work with on their own.”
Alana Woods, a certified music practitioner and author of The Healing Touch of Music: An Exploration Sound Vistas, Inc., is currently developing music protocols for the Center for Ageless Living in Los Lunas, New Mexico to assist those with circulation and upper respiratory disorders and people dealing with grief and loss. She has also had amazing success with the very young. “I once worked with a boy who was autistic, never coming out of his own world,” she relates. “I played soft music for him and he began to respond with words. I have also worked with children who were mentally challenged and found that they actually began to communicate with each other, talk about themselves and respond to simple rhythm sounds.”
Woods has witnessed equally remarkable results with cancer patients. “I worked once with a middle-aged woman who was taking chemotherapy. Her throat was closing down as a reaction to the drugs and she had great difficulty breathing and swallowing. I had her lie on my Somatron table (an acoustic massage table) and simultaneously played a combination of crystal bowls and a recording of music that had the same keys through the table. Her lungs cleared and she could breathe and swallow more easily for the first time in weeks. Her emotions released, and she cried with relief—something she had not been able to do. It was very dramatic.”
Music as Medicine
While there have been several studies completed on the beneficial effects of music on the brain, there is clearly a need to learn more. Camie has teamed up with psychologist and neurotherapist William Collins, PhD to do exactly that. Using quantitative EEG, Collins conducted a pilot study of five adults, aged 22 to 51, whose brain frequencies were measured while first in a relaxed, sitting position and then while listening to the New Love CD. Significant changes occurred in the alpha and beta frequency bands. While listening to the harp music, all five subjects achieved a state of relaxation within four minutes and showed an increase in alpha frequency; four also showed a decrease in beta frequency. Collins has designed a new study to see if Camie’s music could affect the immune systems of breast cancer patients.
It may even be possible to look forward to preventing illness with music therapy. Blum cites Alfred A. Tomatis, MD, a French otolaryngologist who has done a great deal of innovative work with music and sound. “Dr. Tomatis has pointed out that the inner ear translates sound into electrical energy, which charges the brain. By listening to music, as well as using the voice, one can strengthen one’s entire immune system and correct medical conditions. But singing and drumming can also be used prophylactically to keep the brain/body energized and tonified, thereby reducing the risk of opportunistic infections and other diseases.”
Music therapy poses far fewer side effects than many conventional treatments, but the results strike the biggest chord. If music is the key to healing mind and body, play on.