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December 26, 2013 at 9:56 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Music Therapy for Beginners: 4 Ways You Can Use Music To Naturally Improve Your Health

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

This past week, the media filled with the production and vast commentary of a more modern playing of The Sound of Music. I have always loved the basic premise of this story that music is a powerful tool that can do many things. Throughout the story, music teaches children, it revives memories, it enhances feelings of love, it inspires us to do things to our utmost abilities and it brings comfort in difficult times. Maria von Trapp, the matriarch and real-life inspiration for the story said it best: “Music acts like a magic key, to which the most tightly closed heart opens.”   As a doctor, I at times will tap into this "magic key" to help my patients. 

Let's talk about some of the ways we can use music to improve our health. 

1. Music for Relaxation

Did your mom ever sing you a lullaby before bed? They say that music tames the savage beast. Kids are not far off from this notion, running and bounding with endless energy until nap or bedtime. A soft tune can help to calm this energy and bring the body to the relaxed state of sleep. Soft music has been shown to help shift our bodies into relaxation, activating the parasympathetic nervous system which prevails when we sleep, digest food or become sexually aroused. For the condition of insomnia, soft, calming music before bedtime can reduce anxieties, decrease pulse, reduce blood pressure and set the stage to engage in better sleep.  For anxiety states, regular relaxation with music can yield improvements in wellbeing. 

2. Music for Memory

Research has shown that playing music can, in a sense, make you smarter.  In a study sponsored by the National Institute of Health, Hille and colleagues found that studying music has been proven to raise verbal and non-verbal IQ scores, improve vocabulary, spelling, reasoning and math skills, and help with language learning. (1)  There are also suggestions that playing a musical instrument regularly may stave off dementia.  Data from Sweden's twin registry suggest that playing music, along with other mind-engaging activities, may prevent the onset of dementia symptoms. (2)  Another study published last week in the journal Age and Aging followed a group involved for six months in a music-based physical activity program.  Average mental status scores were about 5% higher after the six months of involvement. (3)While this data is supportive, it is not conclusive, however.  Still, it wouldn't hurt as music is something that can continued to be practiced through a lifetime as the body ages and physical abilities may wane.

3. Music to Enhance and Encourage Physical Activity

I have run three full marathons. I am well aware that I did not do this alone. Without my iPod and some "pick me up," inspirational tunes, my body would not have made the 26.2 miles. Music inspires us. Amazingly, just as it can evoke the parasympathetic nervous system, it can also do the same to its opposite, the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is also known as "fight or flight" and is modulated by adrenaline. By activating the sympathetic nervous system, inspirational music can pump adrenaline into our bodies. This adrenaline, gives us an emotional rush, opens our airways to oxygenate the blood and opens our blood vessels to get that oxygen to the muscles. Music also entertains us while we engage in physical activity.  Aerobics classes and spinning classes where a rousing mix of music is played draw people to participate more readily than exercise in silence. And when you watch the Olympics this winter, watch the athletes before they engage in their event with their headphones on, using music to bring them to the pinnacle of their abilities.

4. Music for Improving Mood

Music can elevate our mood.  It can also bring our emotion.  These two factors make music an important tool in depression.  Talk therapy (cognitive behavioral therapy) moves to bring understanding and insight to our mood.  Medications increase the body's levels of neurohormones.  I believe that music can act in much the same way to boost neurohormones and bring insight and perspective into our emotional state.  While not a complete substitute it can help.  As said by Freidrich Richter, “Music is the moonlight in the gloomy night of life.”   

Music entertains us, it adds spice to our live and I believe it can improve our health.  Set your health goals down and make a playlist to help you accomplish these goals.

Live... and live well!


NCBI: Associations between music education, intelligence, and spelling ability in elementary school

CNN: Playing for time: Can Music stave off dementia?

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