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  • Carol Gachiengo

Can Music Really be Thy Medicine

A bit of History

We’ve all heard of food as medicine, thanks to the famous quote attributed to Hippocrates, the founder of Western medicine: “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. But what about music? Can it also be thy medicine?

The concept of music as medicine is increasingly taking root, thanks to recent scientific research that shows it has benefits for various health symptoms and conditions, including pain and stress, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cardiac conditions, autism, mental health, and cancer.

Like food, music isn’t some rare medication with myriad side effects that one only has the misfortune of sampling in the throes of illness. So, any lover of music can testify to the positive effects of music on our sense of wellbeing, both in good times and when life takes a toll. Well… good music, that is. Who could deny the truth in the words of Victorian-era novelist George Eliot who observed that “Life seems to go on without effort when I am filled with music”.

One might even dare to say that our bodies were made for music.

But there’s more to music than a soothing calm at the tail end of a hard day. And even as more recent studies begin to reveal the proof of music’s therapeutic application, it may come as a surprise to most, just how long this science has been around. For example, the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras of Samos, was looking into it more than two thousand years ago. Pythagoras is responsible for the doctrine of musica universalis—‘music of the spheres’— which concludes that when the planets move they produce a symphony of music that is inaudible but can nevertheless be heard by the soul. This ushered in the beginning of music therapy in ancient Greece, which was practiced for the healing of mind, body, and spirit, with lyres and flutes as the instruments of choice.

Fast forward to the nineteenth century where the botanist Robert Brown discovered that particles suspended in gas or liquid move randomly as they collide with each other in dance-like motion. This motion, scientifically dubbed Brownian motion, was described by Brown as ‘musical.’ Since Brownian motion happens in our bodies too, for instance when calcium diffuses through our bones, or when insulin molecules move through our cells, it may not be far-fetched to say that there’s a perpetual song and dance going on, not just in the skies among the planets, but in each of our bodies as well. One might even dare to say that our bodies were made for music.

Human Genome Music

The Human Genome Program, which gave us an accurate and complete human genome sequence for the first time in human history in 2003, led to another astounding discovery; that we are actually ‘made of music,’ in a sense. Japanese geneticist and musician, Susumu Ohno observed that DNA and music are remarkably alike in their repetition and development. Ohno was able to actually help us hear the music in DNA by assigning notes to each of the four bases of which it is composed—cystine for C, adenine for D and E, guanine for F and G, thymine for A and B, and cytosine again for C. Here is a link to Ohno's Symphony of Life.

We are musical beings in a musical universe, but can music really heal us?

So, we are musical beings in a musical universe, but can music really heal us? Take for instance the discovery in the 18th century by Diogel of Paris’ Salpetriere Hospital that music lowers blood pressure, improves heart performance and decreases pulse rate. It took live musicians at patients’ bedsides to come to this conclusion, since it would be another century or so before Thomas Edison would invent the first phonograph (commonly known as the record player) in 1877.

The healing power of music vibration

The sound vibrations that are the very essence of music are the focus of research at the University of Toronto aimed at using music to provide some relief for Parkinson’s, fibromyalgia, and depression patients. Vibroacoustic therapy uses low frequency sound to produce vibrations, which are applied directly to the patient’s body. Music professor Lee Bartel, who is leading the research on the benefit of the sound vibrations absorbed through the body for the patients likens the therapy somewhat to sitting on a subwoofer. A 2009 study at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, Ontario, already found that short-term use of vibroacoustic therapy helped reduce rigidity, improved walking speed and reduced tremors for Parkinson's disease patients. The University of Toronto researchers are also investigating whether vibroacoustic therapy can help patients with mild Alzheimer's disease with communication and improved memory retrieval.

Pain and stress reduction

Research is also providing the explanation for music’s calming effect. For instance, a 2021 study by researchers at the University of Helsinki in Poland showed that listening to music significantly reduces the levels of our stress hormone, cortisol. Other research has shown that listening to music can lower our heart rate and can release endorphins, our bodies’ natural painkillers.

Music Therapy Tools

Gone are the days when music therapy was confined to a clinic appointment or a hospital sick bed. After all, music permeates our days and lives. One Australia based innovator, Music Health, has built a tool that creates personalized music therapy to help improve mental health using what they call Music Wellness Technology (MWT™).

Their music wellness platform, Vera, is aims to ease or prevent certain symptoms of brain ageing associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s, such as stress, memory, mood and movement. A personalized playlist targeting specific areas of the brain to help with each of the three symptoms—a playlist with relaxing music to help ease stress, one with songs from your past to trigger memory, and yet another playlist with music that energizes you to improve your mood and movement. Each individual’s playlists are unique.

Our Takeaway

Healthcare and wellness, while being vital (literally) to our sustainable existence, are areas that can demonstrate our potential to innovate. The convergence of music and healthcare is one that is totally natural - after all, these two areas are universally relatable. One of the lessons learned from COVID is the clear importance of mental health and its impact on our overall physical health. The future certainly looks bright for more awareness of tools and therapies that incorporate music and mental health.

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