Music and the Healing Process

This topic recently came up during one of our presentations where we discussed the acoustical issues of HIPAA and Hospitals. As architects and designers look at the negative impact of excess noise within patient areas, researchers are studying the positive impact of music on the healing process.

The power of music to affect emotions is well known. The right background music adds emotive punch to movies and TV shows (and even lets us know when the villain is near!) Pioneering work in 1991 by John A. Sloboda of Keele University in England revealed that more than 80 percent of sampled adults reported physical responses to music, including thrills, laughter or tears. In a 1997 study by Carol L. Krumhansl of Cornell University, heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and other physiological measures were recorded during the presentation of various musical pieces that were considered to express happiness, sadness, fear, or tension. While the physiological changes are different for each style of music, the changes were consistent across all subjects.

There is also significant research that music can be used in medicine to help manage pain, reduce anxiety and even decrease the time premature babies spend in neonatal units. Studies using music with premature babies have shown a 3- to 5-day earlier discharge from the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) (Caine 1991, Coleman, Pratt & Abel, 1996, Standley, 1996). Apparently the addition of music masks the louder sounds from alarms and equipment within the NICU, helps calm the premature baby, promotes more time in sleep, and has a beneficial effect on their growth and development. In addition, we appear to be born with our appreciation of music. A recent study by Sandra Trehab at the University of Toronto showed that babies as young as two months will turn toward consonant (pleasant) sounds and away from dissonant (unpleasant) sounds.

The November 2004 issue of Scientific American includes an article by Norman M. Weinberger on “Music and the Brain”, which looks at what actually happens in the brains of listeners and musicians. When a person listens to music, the brain’s response involves a number of regions outside the auditory cortex, including areas normally involved in other kinds of thinking. A person’s visual, tactile, and emotional experiences all affect where the brain processes music. Overall, findings to date indicate that music has a biological basis and that the brain has a functional organization for music.

The long and the short of all of this is that music surrounds us, is important to us, and has a multifaceted impact on us. It can make us laugh or cry. It can reduce stress. It can even help us heal.