Music is perhaps the greatest medicine in the world. From infants to centenarians, people love music and the way it makes them feel good. In tribute to its universal qualities, Hans Christian Andersen said: “Where words fail, music speaks”.
Even without lyrics, the songs certainly convey feelings. Among healthy people, researchers have shown that across cultural divides, people can easily classify very different types of music into emotional categories ranging from sad to heroic, boring to beautiful, and eager to outraged.
But the miracle of music lies in its healing qualities. Scientists studying people with brain damage and neurological disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are making remarkable discoveries.
Music, for example, can improve gait for people learning to walk again after brain injury. Listening to music has also been shown to reduce the perception of pain. People who have lost the ability to communicate due to severe brain damage can regain function by chanting the words.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease usually become evident when the part of the brain involved in memory begins to fail. This gradually erodes the ability to manage daily life independently. The loss of a sense of identity is confusing for the patient and heartbreaking for family and loved ones.
But playing music illuminates vast networks in the brain, including areas responsible for motor actions, emotions and creativity. Researchers are studying how music can help treat Alzheimer’s disease.
Michael Thaut, director of the Music and Health Science Research Collaboratory at the University of Toronto, studied patients with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease who listen to meaningful personal music.
He identified “long-known, autobiographically relevant music” — wedding songs, for example, or favorite teenage records — and played those songs repeatedly to test the subjects.
Whether the research participants were accomplished musicians or non-musicians, the results were similar: brain function improved.
Pioneering research by Dr. Lola Cuddy of Queen’s University demonstrating that patients with Alzheimer’s disease have the ability to recognize music and display musical memory has informed the development of music therapy programs as simple as creating a familiar reading list for people with dementia.
What happens in the brain? Familiar music appears to stimulate activity in the brain, leading to the rewiring of new circuits that bypass damaged regions and reestablish connections to memories.
“Music is an access key to your memory, your prefrontal cortex,” explains Thaut. For those hoping to prevent dementia, he adds, “It’s simple: keep listening to the music you’ve loved all your life. Your all-time favorite songs, those tracks that are especially meaningful to you. Make it your brain gym.
Experts disagree on whether it’s better to listen to familiar music or new music. While familiar music sparks happiness, some experts suggest that listening to grandchildren’s music could help the brain create and strengthen additional neural pathways. With that, the jury is out.
What is certain is that music does what no pill can do. Within seconds of exposure, and for prolonged periods, it heals the mind.
Another good news is that it’s not just the brain that benefits from music. Music can reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, relieve pain, improve sleep, improve mood, and increase alertness. But there is something remarkable about music that helps store and then retrieve deeply valuable information and connections.
Shelley, the English romantic poet, who tragically lived only 29 years, wrote: “Music, when soft voices die, Vibrates in memory—” Today’s scholars have proven him right.
And what sweeter medicine than turning on the music and enjoying the journey through happy memories while exercising the mind.
Dr. W. Gifford-Jones is a graduate of the University of Toronto and Harvard Medical School. For more than 40 years, he specialized in gynecology, devoting his practice to the formative issues of women’s health.