Add as bookmark

Music as Medicine

by Hannah Lambert(more info)

listed in sound and music, originally published in issue 20 - May 1997

For centuries people have believed there is a profound link between music and health, but is there any evidence to suggest that music can be therapeutic in more than just an allegorical sense? Can music really alleviate illness and distress?

Music as Medicine

The answer is, unequivocally, yes. Music helps to ease a wide range of physical and mental illnesses. In severe cases, such as autism and terminal disease, it can be the only effective means of positive help. More general ailments such as anxiety and depression are also assuaged with regular exposure to music. Researchers around the globe have shown that music can influence blood pressure, circulation, metabolism, respiration and muscular energy in both humans and animals. During the 1940s, Henry Clay Smith demonstrated that employee productivity was influenced by listening to music. There are many different centres that now use music as a course of treatment. The Harperbury Hospital in Britain, for instance, uses vibro-acoustic therapy: patients are placed in a ‘music bath’ whilst specially chosen ‘New Age’ music is played. The vibrational effects of this are known to improve the condition of children with cerebral palsy, and to relieve back pain, constipation, irregular periods, arthritis and circulatory problems. The connection between music and mental and physical well-being is becoming widely known. As a result, official medical health services, such as the NHS, are increasingly interested in the whole subject.

These developments are backed up by extensive research which shows how physiological and psychological changes produced by music therapy involve a complex brain chemistry. The main structures of the brain involved are the cerebral cortex (thinking brain), the limbic system where emotions are controlled and the brain stem which controls respiration, heart rate and blood pressure, muscle tension and relaxation. Medical scientist, Dr Bernard Brodie, revealed that music stimulates the release of the brain’s natural chemicals – serotonin and norepinephrine, which alleviate depression and replace discomfort with a sense of well-being. Further research by the leading neuroscientists in this field, John Hughes and Hans Kosterlitz proves that music causes the release of   endorphins which block pain, producing a morphine-like effect. This chemical reaction relaxes the body and protects it against pain. It is often mental or emotional imbalance that can seriously affect our health and now music has become an established influence upon our physical condition.

However, scientific evidence alone does not explain the intangible, often magical responses that music can engender. As a practical art form, it has the diversity to encompass a variety of experiences. ‘Creating’ music, as opposed to listening to it, is an aesthetic experience that has value for its own sake. But the process of ‘creative music therapy’ provides a means of communicating, interpreting and understanding the body and mind beyond language, and beyond its common use as a simple pleasurable activity. Only words have past tenses but music always remains in the here and now. The actual elements of music: pitch, intensity, rhythm and timbre of sound, contain the ingredients to bring about emotional, physical and psychological change.

From the elements of music to the actual experience of playing an instrument, singing, listening or even composing, the flexibility of this medium enables people who are physically or mentally impaired to communicate and begin a positive healing process. The Association of Professional Music Therapists describes the use of music as an innate quality which is often unaffected by handicap, injury or illness – “People who have difficulty understanding their environment, or whose verbal communication is an inadequate form of self-expression, may nevertheless be stimulated by music and respond to it. A skilled music therapist is able to use music to arouse and engage clients, and to help them towards realising their potential. . . their problems and handicaps may be emotional, physical, mental or psychological in nature. By using music creatively in a clinical setting, the therapist seeks to establish an interaction, a shared musical experience leading to the pursuit of therapeutic goals. These goals are determined by the therapist’s understanding of the client’s pathology and personal needs”.

Palliative Care Therapists, for instance, can help by minimising the patient’s physical and emotional stress through a number of strategies, involving:
a)    relaxation
b)    decreasing feelings of isolation
c)    increasing self esteem and self-acceptance
d)    allowing expressions of fear and anger
e)    facilitating reminiscence and life review
f)    providing a friendly group activity.

The Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Centre is a prime example of how children and adults can discover a world that frees them to be communicative and expressive through music in spite of physical and mental handicaps. I had the pleasure to visit this serene building, a beautifully converted power station in North London, and spend time in their library, built in 1993 by donations from the pop band Wet Wet Wet. Therapist Donald Wetherick, whose gently affirming character personifies the centre’s ethos, provides us with an enlightening analogy of the developing relationship between therapist and patient. He describes each room as an empty stage within a theatre. The therapist and patient enter, perhaps a little apprehensively. The therapist can draw on his or her own musical skills, techniques and background knowledge of the patient’s disabilities, but once the patient arrives and the communication begins, the therapist can intuitively draw from backstage any props needed to create and develop a play that will unfold upon this stage. It is this musical play itself that provides a structure to the progress of their relationship and the improvement of the patient’s progress. Pauline Etkin, the centre’s director, vividly recounts this process: “As a therapist your antennae are out on tenterhooks the whole time, you’re using every single one of your senses, you’re listening acutely to whatever sound the child may make. You are using your intuition to perceive the emotions of the child.”

This centre, maintained by fund-raising, is based on the teaching of the late concert pianist Paul Nordoff and British special education teacher Clive Robbins. Referrals can come from parents, teachers, social workers, doctors or other professionals and no child is turned away if the parent lacks finance. Children who may once have been unable to smile are heard laughing within the centre, one child who visits said “If I don’t have my music therapy it’s a horrible day”.

One of the most enlightening developments in music for health, is the way in which professional performance companies have begun integrating therapy into their work. English Touring Opera are noticeable pioneers in this field. Using their crew of trained performers and staff, they have found a way that can even benefit the deaf and hard of hearing. Whilst on their regular countrywide tour, behind the scenes lives a vibrant educational programme, providing workshops that help and entertain people with hearing disabilities, the visually impaired, and the physically disabled and elderly.

English Touring Opera provide three hour sessions, usually between 2.00pm and 5.00pm, which take place on the theatre stage of their evening’s performance. A team is chosen, comprising of two workshop leaders, singers and members of the production team. Participants in the workshop will be taught about the storyline of the opera and the costumes and set that are used. Throughout the storytelling, singers perform short extracts and talk about their roles. For people who are deaf or hard of hearing, a language interpreter is provided for the workshop. The participants can ‘feel’ the vibrational sounds by placing their hands on the backs, heads and chests of the singers as they perform their arias. This is complemented by an evening performance of the opera with a sign language interpreter.

The use of music in this way can also be extremely rewarding when working with the elderly as patients are given the opportunity to compose their own songs based on their memories of childhood. These songs can even be developed into an opera if it is a residential workshop. ETO also provide Reminiscence days which involve a short recital and stories from singers and members of the team. People can even request their favourite song for a sing-a-long. Conversations between the group follow and notes can be taken which are turned into the lyrics of a song. For people with disabilities, the workshops take place in school and centres. These are more actively based, and include exercises and games based on drama and making up music. For further information about workshops throughout the country, telephone 0171-820 1131.

In the Music Therapy Department at St Anne’s Hospital, Shira Lampert is one of six therapists who work in different areas: mental health, care of the elderly and learning difficulties. Lampert describes how the use of music has enormous benefits: “Children with communication difficulties are taught how to use music to stimulate and express themselves in a new way, it also helps memory loss in the elderly. It certainly increases the cognitive functions and helps with emotional disturbance. Individuals can listen to particular songs that remind them of their past, triggering the healing process.” Lampert points out that music is an invaluable means of helping people with learning disabilities, particularly autism, where music is an unthreatening tool that can help them engage with the present.

But for those who do not suffer debilitating illness and search for a practical, enjoyable process of healing, listening to music and singing can be experienced within workshops all over the country. From the beginning of time the ceremonial use of chanting, mantras, drumming and singing have been used by religious groups all over the world as a part of spiritual growth. Even the recent discovery of a prehistoric flute in Ljubljana, nearly 82,000 yrs old, provides a firm background of the natural need for musical activity. Rumi, a Sufi Poet in 13th, century describes the flute as: “The musical instrument which symbolises the soul after its separation from God”. So, from drumming to singing, there is always a door waiting to be opened. The benefits can follow through into a daily awareness of activities which ease stress and anxiety. Vocal therapist Chris James describes how using the voice can be the key: “It’s one of the things we’re actually born with. We’ve got hands to draw, we’ve got feet to run, we’ve got a voice that has an extraordinary range and ability to charge the brain, to bring us into altered states. . . when people listen to pure tone, it has a very balancing effect. . . when you use the voice to help align the body people feel it. Even hardened cynics can feel a pure tone through them. . .”

There is no doubt then that music, in all it’s forms, is an excellent source of healing and development in today’s society. There are many different kinds of evidence that show that it has manifold benefits. It can lessen the impact of many chronic and otherwise unbearable conditions, and can in certain cases provide a complete cure for a number of psychological ailments. Additionally, and perhaps even more importantly, its usage can prevent the onset of illness and trauma. Like many other ‘fringe’ therapies, it is now being accepted by the mainstream medical and counselling professions and hopefully, this process will accelerate as its benefits become more widely known.

Anyone can enjoy music: it is an art form that enfolds all languages, cultures and tastes. From passing the busker on the street, to attending an orchestral concert or night club, it reaches into everyone’s lives. All you need are ears and enthusiasm to begin a new journey of change – why not find out what is going on in your area and let the magic of music enter your life? See contact details at the end of this article.

Case Studies: Music Therapy in Action



There are many factors which affect how a woman labours. One of the greatest influences is her physical and psychological approach to her pregnancy and childbirth experience. Anne, a 30yr old accountant, underwent a music therapy programme before and through labour without the use of drugs. Afterwards she felt that the music was an excellent aid to relaxation and helped both her boyfriend and herself by distracting them from trauma.


Jamie was diagnosed with a language disorder at the age of four and began attending the Child Development Centre in Addenbrookes Hospital, Cambridge. Amelia Oldfield, M.Phil., R.M.Th, the therapist in charge of Jamie’s case, described the progress: “In the first instance, the musical instrument and our music making interested Jamie and motivated him to be actively involved with me. This enabled me to start building up a relationship with him which was initially based on shared enjoyment of the musical activities. Jamie was able to maintain this positive relationship with me because I used very little speech in our assessment sessions. He could, therefore relax and simply enjoy being with me. We were playing music together and communicating through sound, but very few specific words needed to be said or understood. It was the use of music as a means of communication which was essential at this point, and this could only have been achieved through music therapy.”


After two years of ill health, a 30yr old gay man suffering from Aids was admitted to the palliative care unit of a general hospital. Shortly after his admission, the patient’s mother arrived but had great difficulty accepting the presence of her son’s boyfriend and had not come to terms with gay lifestyle. One afternoon, the therapist found her holding the boyfriend away from her comatose son. The music therapist gradually began to sing the patient’s favourite songs. When it came to the song ‘Swing low, Sweet Chariot’, the mother began to cry and when she noticed her son’s boyfriend covering his face against the wall, she touched his shoulder. They turned to face each other, both broke down and hugged.

Contact Details

To obtain the professional services of a music therapist, contact the British Society for Music Therapy. Tel/fax: 0181-368 8879. 25 Rosslyn Avenue, East Barnet, Herts EN4 8DH.
Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Centre. Tel: 0171-267 4496. 2 Lissenden Gardens, London, NW5 1PP. Individual sessions cost £15 for children, £20 for adults and £7.50 for group sessions.
English Touring Opera Educational Department. Tel: 0171-820 1131 or 0171-820 1141. Fax: 0171-735 7008. W121 Westminster Business Square, Durham St, London, SE11 5JH.


  1. No Article Comments available

Post Your Comments:

About Hannah Lambert

Hannah Lambert is the Editor of Bel Canto Music and Arts Internet Magazine and Editor of Women in Music magazine.


    Aromatherapy creams & candles. Heal naturally No side effects. Holistic treatments, powerful courses

  • June Sayer Homeopathy

    Training Academy Homeopathy Nutrition Reiki, Distant Learning. Diet, Health Screening, Detox, Stress

  • Super Patch Wellbeing

    Super Patches – a most revolutionary advance in wellbeing strategies in the history of medicine


    Professor Sheik Imam is a famous professional leading African Healer who works with powerful spirits

  • radical spirituality

    UK publisher of rejected knowledge in areas of esoteric thought and radical streams of spirituality.

  • Supercoherence-System

    Supercoherence master code can restore each human to their pristine pure state at the speed of light

top of the page