Body and Mind

Music therapy: there’s more to it than meets the ear

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By Lyndal Phillips

The mystery and magic of music

Music can evoke powerful emotions. Just a few bars of a song can transport us back to the carefree days of our youth, or have us revisit a deep sadness. Our immediate response to music can feel visceral and raw. In fact, it can sometimes seem as though music has a magic of its own.

Before we become too carried away by the wonder of all things, it seems there is a science behind the magic of music.

Professor Daniel Levitin is a neuroscientist, composer and author of the bestselling book, This Is Your Brain on Music. In his book he explains the mystery of our emotional response to music. According to Professor Levitin, the act of listening to music engages the emotional, linguistic and memory centres of the brain, simultaneously. When these brain centres are simultaneously connected, the result is a synesthetic experience. A synesthetic experience is where stimulating one sense such as hearing, can fire up another sensation such as smelling. This is how the magic of music synthesises the disparate parts of our brain. This creates a perceptual experience that is felt across numerous levels of our being.  This effect helps explain our emotive response to music.

Music heals

Music has been used to heal for centuries. Indigenous Australians are among the first people known to heal with sound. The didgeridoo is the modern name given to their healing tool, but it was originally called the yidaki. For at least 40,000 years, the yidaki was played to support the healing of physical, mental and emotional ill health.

Over 2,000 years ago, the philosophers Plato, Aristotle and Socrates all understood the influence of music on the mind. For Socrates, the study of music was prized above all other disciplines. He believed that ‘musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul.’

From the 1800s, when a more sophisticated understanding of the nervous system was achieved, many publications emerged promoting the positive affect of music on health.

The modern approach to music therapy was established in the aftermath of the second world war; musicians were invited to play in hospitals to support the physical and emotional healing of returned soldiers.

Music therapy

The health, community, aged care, disability and early childhood sectors employ music therapists.  Music therapy is used in the treatment of medical illnesses including heart disease. It is used to support patients with neurological disorders like dementia and amnesia, and in the treatment of some psychiatric disorders, including depression and anxiety.

There are generally two modes of music therapy available: active and receptive.

Through active music therapy, the patient and the therapist create music together. The patient is encouraged to be creative and expressive through the art of music making.

During receptive music therapy, music is played or performed by the therapist. The patient is invited to quietly listen to the music, or to respond by drawing, reminiscing, or meditating to the music they hear.

Music therapy is a research-based approach to health, functioning and wellbeing. To find a qualified music therapist in your area, please refer to the website of the Australian Music Therapy Association.

Daily dose of music

While music therapy is an important discipline, there are many benefits you can derive from incorporating music into your daily routine. You can draw strength and inspiration by listening to music when you are feeling low. Singing along to music can provide relief from emotional stress. The boredom of a long drive can be relieved by listening to your favourite songs and the motivation to exercise can be enhanced by playing upbeat tunes with steady beats.

The rhythm of life

Do you have a favourite song, or piece of music, that really resonates with you?

Think about the place music occupies in your life. Perhaps music provides you with comfort, inspiration and company. Most weddings, funerals, birthdays, celebrations and commiserations feature music. Reflect on the music that played during the major milestones of your life.

Perhaps it is true, as Plato once wrote, that ‘music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.’

If your life had a soundtrack, what would it be?

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