The Power of Music for Health

The more we learn about the power of music, the more medical applications we discover for it.

8 January 2016

BBC Focus


Music is medicinal. You might expect a statement like this to come from someone in a drumming circle, a chanting crystal healer or sleazy record-label executive. But the idea that music can be used to for health and to heal the mind is increasingly grounded in scientific evidence – not theory.

Recent studies show how people coping with Parkinson’s can learn to walk more easily when rhythms assist their gait. Other research suggests autistic children find social interactions become easier when accompanied by music, and that less anaesthetic is required when music is played to spinal surgery patients. Perhaps most astoundingly, premature babies gain weight quicker when they can hear music.

Scientific studies – ranging from investigations of the brain at a cellular level, to psychiatric assessments of schizophrenics, to linguistic scores in stroke patients – are all leading to the same conclusion: music isn’t just a form of entertainment, it is evolutionarily significant. And the more we learn about the impact of music on the brain, the more we understand how it can be employed as a therapeutic intervention.


“I originally trained as a music therapist but when I went into practice 15 years ago, I found that so little formal research had been done on how or why it works,” says Prof Christian Gold of the Grieg Academy Department of Music at the University of Bergen in Norway. Gold studies how music therapy can help people with a wide variety of conditions, ranging from learning disabilities to schizophrenia and dementia. “I had planned to go back into clinical practice after spending a few years in research but 15 years later, I’m still researching. There’s just so much to learn.”

A music practitioner plays for a stroke patient at Florida Hospital Oceanside (© Press Association)

A music practitioner plays for a stroke patient at Florida Hospital Oceanside (© Press Association)

Perhaps the most familiar notion of the power of music is the claim that listening to Mozart is good for your brain. But that only tells half the story. Listening to classical music (or any kind of music, even earworms) does have quantifiable impacts on aspects of cognition, such as visual puzzle solving. However, everything you do – solving puzzles, playing sports, painting landscapes – has an impact on your brain.

But nothing seems to anatomically, chemically and beneficially alter your brain the way music can. The grey matter, which is the outer layer of the brain that contains the synapses – the ends of the neurones where signals are relayed – thickens with musical training. Furthermore, the cerebellum, which is the wrinkly bulb at the back of the brain that’s crucial for balance, movement and motor control, is bigger in pianists.

Neuroscientists have documented many other anatomical changes that come with musical experience but the most profound is thought to be the fact that the corpus callosum – a band of nerve fibres that connect the left and right hemispheres to each other – thickens. No-one is quite sure what helping the two sides of the brain to communicate with each other accomplishes, but 20 years after this discovery, nobody has found anything else that does this.

What’s more, MRI scans and EEG recordings show that playing – or even just listening to – music engages almost every region of the brain. From top to bottom, front to back, every part of the brain is involved in the process. The newest parts of the brain, such as the frontal cortex, which is associated with higher thinking, tune in. Older structures in the middle, such as the hippocampus (crucial for memory formation) and the amygdala (central to fear and emotion), are also stimulated by the sound. As are even older parts of the brain, such as the cerebellum. Even the brainstem, the most prehistoric part, responds to music – but not to spoken language.

As far as we know, nothing engages as many parts of the brain as music, which suggests that it might have played an important role in our evolution.


What came first: language or music? Neuroscientists – including Steven Pinker – once thought that language was the crucial skill on the CV of the human brain and the characteristic that set us apart from other animals. He called music ‘auditory cheesecake’ – meaning that we like structured noises because they exploit the same networks in our brains that are built to process grammar, prosody and other speech patterns.

But not only does music engage parts of the brain that are not stimulated by language, it is possible to be musical and completely non-verbal. Aphasia – the loss of speech comprehension or production – frequently occurs following a stroke and can leave many people unable to speak and thus feeling isolated and depressed. Yet often those who can’t speak can still appreciate and create music. The most famous example of this is the Russian composer Vissarion Shebalin (1902-1963) who developed aphasia after a series of strokes. He couldn’t speak, yet he could still craft entire symphonies, completing his fifth and final one just three months before his death.

Worldwide, 15 million people suffer strokes every year and speech difficulties are one of the most common outcomes. Therapists in the 1940s began developing a technique known as melodic intonation therapy – using melodies and singing to help stroke victims regain speech. The idea made sense; after all, young children learn the alphabet through song and ‘motherese’ – the sing-song language that parents coo to their babies that is found in every culture on Earth.

Neuroscientists theorised in the 1970s that when a stroke damages areas in the left hemisphere of the brain that are crucial for language – in particular, Broca’s area – musical training can cause regions on the undamaged right hemisphere to take on the task of producing speech instead.

Since then countless studies have documented how music can aid speech recovery. The highest profile example of this is probably US congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. She was shot in the head in 2011 but survived the attempted assassination. She credits music therapy for helping her regain the ability to read, write and speak.

“Although it’s still an open question over what aspects of music are important – rhythmic or melodic – there is growing evidence that melodic intonation therapy can help people with aphasia,” says Dr Teppo Särkämö of the University of Helsinki. Through examining MRI scans of stroke patients he has shown not only that music aids in language recovery, but actually induces visible changes in a variety of brain structures after just six months of treatment.

In 2008, Särkämö found that of 54 stroke patients, those given musical recordings improved in their linguistic capacities to a greater degree than patients given audio books. Music aided language recovery better than language itself.

“One of the things that makes music so interesting is that it’s pleasant but at the same time cognitively demanding,” says Särkämö. “This is one of the few therapeutic interventions we have that is both soothing as well as challenging.”

Research suggests that autistic children find social interaction easier when accompanied by music (© Press Association)

Research suggests that autistic children find social interaction easier when accompanied by music (© Press Association)