Sound Health: Music as Medicine for the New Millennium, Part II

by Lily G. Casura

Copyright © 2002 by Lily G. Casura. All rights reserved.

The beautiful thing about music and healthcare, says Dr. Arthur Harvey, one of the keynote speakers at the first annual international conference of the “Music for Healing and Transition Program,” recently held at Seattle University, is that “music doesn’t need a prescription!” Dr. Harvey, who teaches at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in the music department, and has worked for years with clinicians and medical schools, spoke on the topic, “Music That Brings Connection,” with an emphasis on the scientific evidence behind the music-brain connection.

Dr. Harvey is also the executive director of Music & Health, “music for health services,” based in Honolulu, Hawaii. He is one of the authors of “Learn with the Classics: Using Music to Study Smart at Any Age,” and is a consultant to the LIND Institute in San Francisco, where he worked on the series of audio CDs, “Relax with the Classics,” and the “Health and Wellness Collection,” a two-CD set featuring Bach for the morning and Handel for the evening. He’s also at work on a forthcoming book, about the music-brain connection.

(Update: Dr. Harvey appears today to be in retirement from academia, and perhaps still serving as the director of Music for Health Services in Sarasota, Florida. His previous websites are no longer on the Web.

A recent book, Walking the Spirit: A Musician’s Journey Healing Body, Mind & Spirit,” cites Dr. Harvey’s work in ‘neuromusicology.’)

Dr. Arthur Harvey

Dr. Harvey’s presentation at the conference, despite a difficult mid-evening time slot to accommodate his travel schedule, was remarkably enlivening, given the lateness of the hour, and combined a variety of formats, from song, piano-playing, and audience participation, to an excellent PowerPoint presentation about the scientific evidence for music-brain connection, and an extensive series of video clips, mostly from previously-aired television broadcasts, of work with actual patients. The conference attendees, many of whom were lifelong musicians turned music educators and practitioners, seemed particularly intrigued by the material Dr. Harvey presented, especially the video clips which appeared to show how quickly music could have a positive effect on, for example, Alzheimer’s patients, “often within the length of time of a single song,” said Harvey.

A recent Alzheimer’s study, using two of the Relax with the Classics recordings, “largo” and “adagio,” cited in the Journal of Gerontological Nursing (July, 1997) found that music profoundly decreased patient symptoms. Physically agitated behaviors decreased by 56%, and verbally agitated behaviors by 57%. “Clearly,” Harvey says, “music that is capable of calming these seriously disordered patients can do at least as much for the rest of us.” (The “Health and Wellness” collection, featuring selections of Bach for the morning and Handel for the evening, was created for use in healthcare and medical facilities, as well as for the general public; and the CD that goes along with the Learn with the Classics program is intended to help produce the desired “body relaxed, mind alert” state optimal for learning and remembering new material.)

Music, says Harvey, is “capable of creating change in almost every system in your body, and about all it takes is one song.” What affects us most in music? “Tempo, loudness, degree of dissonance, tone quality (timbre) and texture,” says Harvey. “Music affects cognitive development, it facilitates changes in energy states and consciousness,” and can be used to stimulate “both physiological and psychological health.” Sound, he says, changes the neurochemistry of the brain, by having an effect on central nervous system, the peripheral nervous system and the autonomic nervous system. “It connects with the endocrine system and immunity,” he adds. “Music can’t make you well,” he’s quick to point out, but “music can be a vehicle for making us healthier.”

Harvey listed numerous benefits of music’s physiological effects on the human body, which are recently beginning to be discussed in the scientific literature. Music, he says, can stimulate thymus activity, improving levels of lymphocytes, macrophages and salivary IgA. Music affects the limbic system — the “emotional brain.” “Music is perhaps one of the strongest stimulators of amygdala response,” and can help mediate aggression, fear, etc. The hippocampus, which controls long-term memory and recall, is also positively affected by music, as the studies which document Alzheimers’ patients improvement with music underscore. It affects the hypothalamus and thalamus positively, says Harvey, and has a great effect on levels of serotonin in the body, which increase emotional stability. “Music can put more serotonin into your system, literally bathing your brain,” he says. It can also affect melatonin levels. Studies have found, he says, that those who study music or play music also sleep better. The endorphins that music creates also help you feel good, despite being in pain. “Music helps masks pain,” Harvey says, through the pain gate theory, so that someone in pain appears not to attend to or to notice the pain as much. (Dentists have known for a while, he says, that music creates distraction, and employ background music as a kind of “auditory analgesia”). Music, according to Harvey, also improves levels of beta-endorphins and enkephalins, and blocks receptor sites of Substance P, much like morphine does. Rheumatologists are even finding that making music can reduce the spread of arthritis, he said.

On the psychological side, music can increase positive changes in mood, emotional security (important because the very ill can become disoriented), bring about catharsis, be a consciousness changer or integrator, help the autistic get past barriers, increase attention, better integrate thinking and feeling, and increase reality orientation. Not to mention, “the more emotionally healthy a patient is, the more quickly they’ll recover” from illness or surgery. Even the work with music and Alzheimer’s has shown that music is “equally effective for both the well and the frail elderly, helping patients eat and sleep better, and improving mood.” Best of all, in the healthcare arena, says Harvey, is the simple fact that “music is cost-effective!”

An Austrian study, presented at the 10th World Congress of Pain, bears out some of Dr. Harvey’s conclusions. Researchers from the General Hospital of Salzburg studied the effect of relaxation imagery and music on pain relief, and concluded that the group of patients who listened to music had “substantially better pain relief,” as well as improvements in their sleep. When asked if the results of the study indicated that patients could try this at home, one of the study’s authors gave the definitive thumbs-up. “Patients can very well do this at home,” he said.



The Music for Healing and Transition Program, Inc.

22 West End Road

Hillsdale, NY 12529


(They train and certify music practitioners, and hold an annual international conference in music for healing and transition. Graduates of the program are called “music practitioners.”)

Note: This article does not constitute health advice, merely educational information. If you want to make effective and appropriate healthcare decisions, consult your physician or credentialed healthcare practitioner for advice.

Focused on using data as a tool in research & policy decisions. IWMF grantee. NASW-TX and Tableau Public award winner. UTSA, Harvard honors grad. Ph.D. student.

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