Music therapy has been documented through the centuries as a credible form of healing. The philosophy of music has also been found prominently in the writings of Aristotle and Plato. Homer prescribed music to counteract mental anguish, and Asclepiades of Bithynia is said to have prescribed Phrygian music for sciatica and other illnesses. Democritus prescribed various flute melodies, and Pythagoras is said to have clinically applied music for nervousness. The respected Roman physician Galen applied music to his healing repertoire. Among other therapies, Galen prescribed a “medical bath” inclusive of flute song for nerve pain. The famous sixteenth century Swiss physician Paracelsus was a strong believer in sound therapy as well. His recommendations included not only herbal remedies, but colors and sound to achieve health.
Both Aristotle and Plato also suggested music therapy was useful for the healing of society and people in general. Aristotle went as far as to describe a good man as a type of musician. Said Plato in The Republic: “Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace…” (III, S401e).
Modern western medicine rediscovered music therapy during the twentieth century, when it was found that music helped injured world war veterans heal faster. This led to musicians being hired by hospitals, which in turn led to a need for further research and training. Since that time, music therapy has become a credentialed, evidence-based healing modality in the United States. The first college degree program for music therapists was established in 1944 at Michigan State University. In 1950, the National Association of Music Therapy came into existence, which later became the American Music Therapy Association. In the 1980s, the Certification Board for Music Therapists began to certify music therapists. Today this organization claims over 4,000 board certified music therapists.
The clinical research documenting the usefulness for music therapy is impressive. It has been identified as a valid complementary and alternative medicine by the National Institutes of Health and many hospitals other organizations. Music therapy has been used with success in cases of cancer, schizophrenia, dementia, cardiovascular diseases, somatic issues, anxiety, pain, post-surgery recovery, eating disorders, depression, multiple sclerosis, deafness tinnitus, and a host of other physical, emotional, and psychological issues. Music therapy during prenatal care and during labor has been shown to be a valuable addition to other therapies like breathing exercises and specific exercises. In hospitals, music therapy is often used to help alleviate pain and increase post-surgical healing. It is often used in conjunction with anesthesia and pain medication. Music therapy has been shown to be dramatically effective in elevating mood, alleviating depression, inducing sleep and in general, decreasing hospital stays (Hillecke et al. 2005). Most of these effects have been observed in rigorous clinical conditions. One review of the research, published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences in 2005 (Thaut 2005) has called for “a paradigm shift to move music therapy from an adjunct modality to a central treatment modality in rehabilitation and therapy.” As a result of the credibility such statements have rendered, music therapy is now covered under many states’ Medicaid programs, and many insurance companies around the U.S. are starting to cover music therapy sessions.
There are a number of measurable physiological responses now shown by a growing library of research on music therapy. In one example, Wachiuli et al. (2007) found in a controlled study on 40 volunteers that subjects who engaged in recreational music-making using drumming protocol had better moods, lower stress-related cytokine interleukin-10 levels, and higher natural killer cell activity compared with the control group. These markers of course, translate to better immune system response, suggesting greater disease prevention.
Hillecke T, Nickel A, Bolay HV. Scientific perspectives on music therapy. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2005 Dec;1060:271-82.
Thaut MH. The future of music in therapy and medicine. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2005 Dec;1060:303-8.
Wachiuli M, Koyama M, Utsuyama M, Bittman BB, Kitagawa M, Hirokawa K. Recreational music-making modulates natural killer cell activity, cytokines, and mood states in corporate employees. Med Sci Monit. 2007 Feb;13(2):CR57-70.