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Does Music Therapy Work? Evidence and facts, from a psychiatrist

by Scott Haltzman, M.D.

Remember the 1989 standoff with Manuel Noriega, the deposed leader of Panama? American agents surrounded his hideout with loudspeakers and blasted rock music, day in and day out. Anyone who's seen footage of his capture (or, for that matter, has a neighbor with a hi-fi) cannot doubt the power loud, unpleasant music has to drive you crazy.

But can music do the opposite? Can the right music, played at the right volume, affect the course of medical ailments, soothe the nerves or enhance quality of life? Studies say: Yes!


Music therapy uses sound or music to improve the outcome of, or provide comfort to, medical patients. Practitioners generally have a bachelor's degree that includes over 1,000 hours of training.

The therapy may be done with individuals or groups, and might involve listening to or playing music, writing music, or creating or discussing lyrics. Some music therapy incorporates movement and dance, and some is done at the bedside or even during surgery while the patient is under anesthesia.


Music therapy is based on the principle that the body responds to passive music listening, active music production and sharing the experience of music with others. The brain, experts theorize, is programmed to respond music's regular beat and rhythm. Slower beats can slow down brain waves down and induce relaxation; faster beats can stimulate the brain.

While researchers haven't completely tested out these theories, we do know that the part of the brain involved in musical awareness is closely linked to the part that controls emotions. It's also a generally accepted medical truth that reducing stress can help people control the symptoms of illnesses.


Studies have shown that music therapy can lower blood pressure, improve sleep and reduce anxiety. Cancer patients who get music therapy in addition to chemotherapy report less nausea, anxiety and pain in the initial phases of treatment. Stroke patients who get music therapy not only have more motivation and better moods, but an improvement in their movement recovery.

newsletter-graphicMoreover, music therapy may benefit children and adults with developmental disabilities and adults with Alzheimer's disease. Because music therapy is closely linked to other forms of stress reduction, it might also be helpful for depression, anxiety disorders and memory enhancement.

Even if it doesn't cure all your ailments, unlike other therapies your doctor may recommend, music therapy won't hurt a bit!

Board-certified psychiatrist
Scott Haltzman, M.D., is a professor at Brown University and medical director of NRI Community Services, a behavioral-health provider in Woonsocket-Rhode Island. His most recent book is The Secrets of Happily Married Women.

Thanks to voice teacher and singer/songwriter Judy Rodman for giving us the idea for this article.

Last updated and/or approved: April 2010. Original article appeared in March/April 2009 former print magazine. Bio current as of April 2009. This article is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.


Comments (3)add comment
written by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. , February 21, 2012

Thanks, Chelsey.
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written by Chelsey Benson , February 20, 2012

This is a decent article but I suggest putting a disclaimer or something to let readers know that these theories have been tested. Also the wording such as "...might be helpful..." once again the benefits from having music therapy have been proven.
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written by -Victoria Deaton[:* , May 04, 2010

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