Five Ways To Use Music As Medicine


If you’ve ever been a parent, you probably had a trick for getting a young baby to sleep.

It differs by child, and can differ by age. But one standby for newborns has always been the lullaby.

As it turns out, that lullaby does more than put a baby to sleep. Indeed, a number of recent studies have found that music provides a whole host of beneficial side effects.

In fact, music is so powerful, I and many other doctors now think of it as a very effective medicine.

Today, let’s take a look at the five most beneficial aspects of music—and then examine when you should use it in your life.

Music Can Help You Sleep

As I mentioned above, a new study out of Beth Israel Medical Center found that music helped premature babies get to sleep much more easily.

But it achieved this through a variety of effects. It slowed the heart rate of babies. When awake, it promoted prolonged quiet alertness. It even improved sucking behavior in the young ones.

Many different types of music were used in the experiment, but the strongest effects were observed when parents were singing to their children. And that also dovetailed with another well-known fact about music.

Music For Stress Relief

Music can be very relaxing. One of the reasons for this is music actually decreases the amount of corticol—the stress hormone—in your bloodstream.

This worked in the above study as well. When parents were singing to their child, the parents’ stress was reduced, along with the happy effects for the baby.

That study is far from alone. Others have found that music has a soothing effect even in the most trying of circumstances—such as in the lead-up to surgery or when a child gets an IV.

But the effects were even more dramatic than that. Not only was there reduced stress—there also was reduced pain.

Music For Pain Relief

Yes, in the study mentioned above, children getting an IV, while listening to music, felt less pain.

The same thing has been repeated elsewhere. A study in Singapore found patients in palliative care experienced significant pain reduction when music was added to their care.

For acute pain, active listening is especially effective. This is because the same pathways that listen to music also carry pain signals. Active listening effectively distracts your body from pain.

But music also has an effect on chronic pain, like that found in fibromyalgia sufferers. Again, distraction may be an important aspect of this. But some doctors suggest that stimulated production of natural opioids in the body may also play a role.

Music As Immune Booster

If you’re feeling less pain, you might be tempted to push your body a little bit farther. A longer exercise program, for instance.

However, you needn’t worry about over-stressing your body. Because music has also been found to boost your immune system.

Both listening to and playing music increases production of antibody immunoglobulin A. In addition, killer cells—those that attack and destroy invaders—also increased.

The result was found in a meta-study of over 400 different experiments, and it’s unclear what the exact mechanism is. But I’m not that concerned with why, at this point—I’m simply excited by the prospect of a clean, easy, and largely free way to boost anyone’s immune system.

How Music Therapy Help?

Finally, on the leading edge of research, the actual vibrations that carry music through the air may have beneficial side effects as well.

Think of cats and their purr. We’ve known for a while that purring at certain frequencies helps cats large and small to heal.

Now, we’ve tried similar things with humans. And using low-frequency sounds, with the speaker up against a patient’s body, we’ve seen results.

Specifically, in Parkinson’s patients, music therapy—known clinically as vibroacoustic therapy—led to better mobility, less rigidity, fewer tremors, and an overall reduction in all symptoms.

Vibroacoustic therapy has proven beneficial to fibromyalgia patients as well, and we’re starting to see it work on an even wider array of disorders, from depression to Alzheimer’s.

Music doesn’t just move you. It heals you as well.

How Should I Use Music?

In your own life, you probably already self-prescribe music at appropriate times.

Many people listen to music to calm themselves down if they feel stressed. If you don’t do that already, you should start.

And, since it promotes sleep, music is a wonderful way to help regulate your own schedule. Especially if you substitute time in front of a screen—which is counterproductive—with an end-of-day music session instead.

If you are suffering pain or anxiety—no matter the source—music can be a great comfort. The more actively you listen, the greater the effects will be. You might simply not have space left over to think about your pain.

And finally, if you or someone you know suffers from one of the more severe conditions mentioned above, like Parkinson’s disease or fibromyalgia, talk with your doctor about adding music to your therapy.



Last Updated: June 23, 2021
Originally Published: October 21, 2015