Music as therapy?


When the holidays are over the time has come where it is still cold but not “gezellig” anymore. No more happy Christmas music, no more cute lights, we have to eat healthy again and get back to work. At the end of the year everyone starts to realize what their 2019 was like. Instagram exploded from the Spotify wrapped of 2019. Which drove everyone crazy. Like I don't need to know that you listened 2324 minutes to music. But I understand the fact that people listen to music so much. You used to have to buy a record player and record to listen to music. And you couldn't take it with you. Today listening to music is so much easier. You can basically listen to music everywhere you want and get access to a lot of music too. But what makes music so attractive that we can't get enough of it and want to listen to it anytime we can? Music releases something within us that we all love. Whether it is to make us feel happy or to process our sadness. But why?

First of all, when we listen to music, dopamine arises in our brain. Which we know is a happiness hormone. The nucleus accumbens in the brain plays a role in the development of dopamine. This part of the brain is also active when using drugs such as cocaine. Besides that, there are a lot of things going on in our brain while we are listening to music. Why do we feel so many emotions with music? Well, when you feel those Goosebumps coming up with a certain song it’s the amygdala in your brain which is working. The amygdala is the part that regulates our emotions and because of that allows us to remember better because memories with emotion are better memorized. But also, because the hippocampus stores memories with music in the long-term memory.

Because of all the activation, listening to music is already good for your brain, but when you play an instrument or learning to play one it’s even better because then there is even more going on in your brain. Then the motoric and sensory parts start working. With touching, for example, the snares from a guitar. Together with the other parts that are working extra hard to listen to what you play while you are playing an instrument. And if you are really good and can read notes, well then your brain is doing a lot of things together. 

So… that’s a lot of information and terms but what can we do with this information? What are the advances from the activity in our brains while we listen to or play music? Because there is so much activity going on in the brain it can improve the different parts which all represent a different purpose. Your two brain hemispheres are working together when playing music with both hands. If these work better together, it increases empathy, helps with memory and problem-solving abilities. It makes the brain more flexible. Research shows that children who received music lessons from the age of 6 to 9 generally perform better than children who did not. This is because, for example when triggering the hippocampus, we improve our memory. 

The most wonderful thing of all this is that it can activate parts which are still working besides other parts that maybe don’t function well anymore. Think of mental health issues. Like someone with dementia. Dementia particularly affects the hippocampus, an essential component of the human memory system. However, this amnesia often concerns recent events, while events in the distant past remain surprisingly intact. And what we just learned is that memories with music stores in the long-term memory. What means that people with dementia can often remember events or particular feelings when listening to music. Listing and playing music for them can’t sadly improve the short-term memory but it can make them feel safe for a moment because they are back to the time they remember for a second. 

But there are a lot of people that would benefit from music therapy. People with autism find it hard to communicate and can in that way communicate through music. By continuing to stimulate the social brain function with music, the ability can be increased. Music therapy already has a lot of success stories. A woman who lost her speech due to a cerebral haemorrhage suddenly sings along flawlessly when her favourite song is played. Neurological music therapists such as Evelien Mescher can list countless examples of success from their practice. In an interview she says the following: "A woman wanted so badly to say to her partner again: "I love you." I put that sentence to the melody to sing it together. Then we pronounce the sentence while I give the rhythm by tapping her hand. That way another part of the brain gets activated and she can just pronounce the sentence."

In my opinion we should benefit more from all the perks that come with music. In the form of music therapy, in combination with other therapies or giving music lessons. It would be great if there were more music lessons in care homes or hospitals. To ease the tension and make the people feel more at home. All in all, the benefits of music should be more apparent and applied in the healthcare sector.