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The Miracles of Music

Updated: Apr 5, 2019


The Healing Power of Music in Affective and Neurological Disorders.


Anyone who knows me will be aware of how much I love music, and, in particular, singing. Music has such an important place in my life and I often turn to it as a form of self-care. With this in mind, when I found out that such a thing as ‘music therapy’ existed, although excited, I was unsurprised- it made sense to me. What has surprised me, however, is all the fascinating things I have learnt since delving further into this mode of therapy and the neurological, physiological and psychological effects it can offer.


In last week’s post, '12 Ways to Look After Your Mind', I briefly mentioned the transformative healing power of music in allowing us, as humans, to harness our capacity to feel. Singing, dancing, playing music, listening to music and composing music are all utilised within music therapy as, due to their involvement in activating our primordial neurobiology, their efficacy in moving us is generally universal and irresistible. This is because music, like food and sex, involves the brain mechanisms of reward and motivation that constitute our survival related systemswe can’t help but move to it, or be moved by it.


The desire to beat in unison with music, or anything for that matter, arises before we are even born. The beating cells that become the heart of a baby continue to fuel our life. In the last trimester a baby can hear the outside world and pick up musical elements of speech and music. And thus, we are born with an innate capacity to move to the beat of music.

Enjoy this snippet of gold.

The Origin of Music Therapy: Music therapy saw its conception during the first world war when wounded soldiers’ “pain and misery, and even, seemingly, some of their physiological responses (pulse rates, blood pressure, and so on) could be improved by music” (Sacks, Musicophilia). Since then, with greater understanding of the brain, and the establishment of neuroscience in the 1980s, music's therapeutic effects have been greatly complicated but in the most wonderful way as it now serves as an established psychological clinical intervention.

The Types of Music Therapy:

Music therapy is generally split in two: 1. Receptive (listening) 2. Active (creating)

In both cases therapist and client work together to create musical experiences. A session may consist of singing as a way to explore and express emotions, or listening to music as a way of grounding- coming back to the body after being caught up in the mind, thereby turning off the cognitive part of the brain. As a whole, examining a person’s relationship to music can reveal a lot about their relationship to emotion and their willingness to feel. As opposed to talking therapy, music therapy is a more creative mode of therapy and its emphasis on play and creation reaches out to psychoanalyst, Winnicot’s, theory of play revealing the true self.

Music therapy can be effective in aiding both affective disorders and neurological disorders.


Affective disorders:

Music can serve in easing affective disorders in several ways.

1. It is thought that affective disorders such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are often routed in dysfunction of limbic structures (e.g. amygdala). Music holds the incredible capacity to modulate activity of all major limbic and paralimbic brain structures (those responsible for emotion), and thus it can act as natural, non-pharmaceutical relief for these disorders.

2. Music’s anxiolytic (anxiety reducing) effect can also lower stress hormone levels such as cortisol; increase dopamine levels; trigger the brain to release endorphins; and even block pain pathways. Pretty amazing huh?

3. Music therapy can suppress the sympathetic nervous system, which serves a significant role in prompting the 'flight-or-flight' stress response of the body. The unnecessary activation of the ‘fight-or-flight’ response is often responsible for feelings of anxiety and panic (see previous post, ‘Conquering Anxiety’).

4. Music can not only elicit psychological mood changes, but, as previously mentioned, can trigger physiological changes in heart rate and respiration. In turn these changes are mirrored by positive changes in mood, particularly generating a sense of calm.

Neurological disorders:

As if that wasn't impressive enough, where the power of music becomes even more extraordinary is in the role it plays in neurological disorders.

1. Alzheimer’s:

Years of research has uncovered amazing things about the effect music can have on those with memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s. This goes way beyond the use of music in triggering temporary memory-relief, as longer-term effects have been found including improvements of mood, behaviour and even cognitive function. And even greater still, all of those can persist for hours or days after they have been initiated by music. In his book, Musicophilia (*affiliate link to buy*), neurologist Oliver Sacks reveals how “musical perception, musical sensibility, musical emotion, and musical memory can survive long after other forms of memory have disappeared”. This enduring longevity of music perhaps explains why music reaches humans in ways that nothing else can.

2. Aphasia: Aphasia is the loss or impairment of language (speaking, writing and reading) through brain injury (e.g. stroke). Melodic intonation therapy is particularly useful for aphasic patients as it converts speech into song through singing words in various pitches. It is often found that people can sing but not speak, as the processing of song and speech occupy different areas of the brain.

3. Tourette’s: The power music has on Tourette’s syndrome, that is, a condition characterised by tics, is pretty mind-blowing. In Musicophilia, Sacks tells several stories about people who, usually plagued by tics, are suddenly freed from its compulsion upon playing music. In one example, on awaiting the commencement of a drum circle, Sacks found himself amongst an “eruption of tics [...] rippling around the thirty-odd Touretters there- but once the drum circle started, […] all the ticcing disappeared within seconds”. It is in this way that music can “reconfigure brain activity, and bring calm and focus”.

4. Parkinson’s:

Parkinson’s disease is marked by a long-term degenerative disorder affecting the motor system, and yet, research has shown that the 'organising element' of music can help support and even preserve functional mobility as it works to tackle the underlying neural mechanism of such disorders.


Although music therapy is a highly personalised concept with the power of music tied to memories and experience, I thought it would be interesting to look into what stands as the most evocative songs and thus see what it is that really gets us humans ticking. Here are 12 that kept reappearing in my search:


  1. 'Fix You', Coldplay

  2. 'Everybody Hurts' R.E.M

  3. 'Man in the Mirror', Michael Jackson

  4. 'Imagine', John Lennon

  5. 'Tears in Heaven', Eric Clapton

  6. 'Hallelujah', Jeff Buckley

  7. 'I Will Always Love You', Whitney Houston

  8. 'Back to Black', Amy Winehouse

  9. 'Say Something', A Great Big World

  10. 'I Vow to Thee, My Country'

  11. 'I'll Never Love Again', Lady Gaga (A Star is Born)

  12. My Heart Will Go On, Céline Dion

What do these songs have in common? Most of the songs listed here have serious and thought-provoking lyrics; listeners have tied the song to something factually emotional (e.g. 'Tears in Heaven' is about Eric Clapton's son's death; Amy Winehouse's songs were made sadder by her tragic death; 'My Heart Will Go On' makes people think of the tragedy of the Titanic; 'I Vow to Thee' triggers thoughts of war and sacrifice); they have relatable content (heartbreak, loss, conflict, social strife); and they are written in a minor key and have a slow tempo.


I don't want to end on a low so here are some of the happiest songs, perfect for when any of you need a musical pick-me-up:


  1. 'Don't Stop Me Now', Queen (this is actually classified as the happiest song ever by researchers at the University of Missouri)

  2. 'Good Vibrations', The Beach Boys

  3. 'Dancing Queen', ABBA

  4. 'Uptown Girl', Billie Joel

  5. 'Happy', Pharrell Williams

  6. 'I'm a Believer', The Monkees

  7. 'Don't Stop Believing', Journey

  8. 'I Wanna Dance with Somebody', Whitney Houston

  9. 'Walking on Sunshine', Katrina and the Waves 10. 'This is Me', The Greatest Showman


What these songs have in common is a fast tempo (e.g. 150 beats per minute), positive and uplifting lyrics (about dancing or prospering) and they are written in, or progress to, a major key.


With all this in mind, it really confuses me when people (like my Mum!) say they don't really listen to music, but perhaps reading this may convert those less in tune with the miracles of music to make themselves vulnerable to its influence. Music really can be transformative, healing and therapeutic if you just open yourself up to it.

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