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The healing power of music

French N.G.O. Musique et Sante (Music and Health). Music therapy in children's ward. (BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
French N.G.O. Musique et Sante (Music and Health). Music therapy in children's ward. (BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

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Many of us turn to music to feel better. But music can also help us physically heal.

Studies show music can affect our blood pressure and our heart rate – and even help us manage pain.

Today, On Point: Music’s power to heal not only your soul, but your body, as well.

Guests

Psyche Loui, associate professor of creativity and creative practice at Northeastern University. Director of the Music, Imaging, and Neural Dynamics Laboratory (MIND Lab). (@psycheloui)

Pier Lambiase, professor of cardiology at University College London and Barts Heart Centre. (@LambiasePier)

Also Featured

Suzanne Hanser, chair emerita and professor of music therapy at Berklee College of Music. (@suzannehanser)

Transcript: The healing power of music

SUZANNE HANSER: At the first treatment, I would bring all of the instruments I could carry. So, I had a Native American flute.

I had a ukulele.

I had hand chimes that create a very resonant sound in this very bright steel glass environment in the chemotherapy unit.

CHAKRABARTI: The chemo unit is at the Center for Integrative Therapies at Boston’s Dana-Farber-Cancer Institute. The patients Suzanne Hanser was working with had metastatic breast cancer.

HANSER: And I would just improvise on some of these instruments and say, we’re just going to try some music and just let me know if you like it, if you want more, if we should try something else.

And then I would just suggest sometimes that they just breathe with the music or suggest that they just imagine being in a beautiful, comforting place.

CHAKRABARTI: Suzanne is a professor of music therapy at Berklee College of Music. The women had agreed to work with her on research investigating the effects of how music changes a cancer patient’s psychological and physiological responses to treatment.

HANSER: And in the second session we would start with what they really appreciated from the first session and at the opportunity to improvise with me.

So I had a rain stick, something very simple to play. But when you close their eyes, it often transports you to a rain forest or a waterfall or some place in nature.

In the final session, we did some of that and also provided an opportunity for each woman to write a song. And I remember one woman saying, well, there’s just no way I could write music. And I said, Well, perhaps there’s something important you want to say to someone, someone that you love, someone who’s cared for you. And she said, Oh, I don’t know. I don’t really think of anything I’d like to say right now.

And I said, Well, how about writing a song to someone? Is there someone in your life that you like to write a song for? She said, No, I don’t really think so. And then I said, perhaps you’d like to write a song about our experience. You seem to have enjoyed our music therapy sessions. And she just started singing. The music is here. The dancing is here. Back and forth we go. The music will help me. The music can aid me. I think it really will help. It is here when I need it. It is here when I want it. The music will be right for me.

Who would have thought? Some of the women participating in our study said, I never thought chemotherapy would be fun, but, you know, in these sessions they were providing a really beautiful atmosphere for processing what they were going through.

There’s a lot of research out there that speaks to the many physiological changes that happen during a music therapy session: decreased heart rate, decreased blood pressure, their perception of pain. Individuals who had chronic pain, they didn’t necessarily have their pain go away.

But several reflected on how that process, where they were listening to very meaningful music changed. Well, the way that they experienced pain for one person. He said that the throbbing nature of his pain improved, and it became less noticeable. The importance of that is not that perhaps music can relieve pain.

But if a person sees that they can manage the pain, that the pain they thought was constant can actually change while they’re engaged with music, then they know that they can somehow take control of this pain.

Everyone can probably find a piece of music that they love being able to listen to that piece of music. When we’re in a crowded, noisy environment or we’re in a physician’s waiting room, wherever we might be, we can use music to change our mood.

We have music on our playlist that we love. We have music that is constantly changing the way we feel. So, reflecting on how music affects you will teach you about the music that you might want to play when you’re feeling really agitated, or the music that you might need when you’re feeling really lonely or depressed.

A musical experience that engages someone, that makes them dance. That makes them think. That makes them remember. That helps them go back to a wonderful opportunity to live life to its fullest.

Related Reading

Scientific American: “How Music Can Literally Heal the Heart” — “In a maverick method, nephrologist Michael Field taught medical students to decipher different heart murmurs through their stethoscopes, trills, grace notes, and decrescendos to describe the distinctive sounds of heart valves snapping closed, and blood ebbing through leaky valves in plumbing disorders of the heart.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.