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The Healing Powers of Music

Updated: Aug 17, 2022

There's no doubt that we are currently living in unprecedented times. Between the COVID pandemic, political upheaval, and the constant barrage of the news, Americans are constantly having to process new collective trauma. In these difficult moments, it can be a struggle to deal with stress and anxiety in effective ways. But did you know that music can subdue our fight or flight response? According to a study of newborn babies conducted at The Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at Mount Sinai hospital in New York, terrified babies exposed to instruments such as the Gato Box (which recreates the sound of the mother's heartbeat) attach to familiar sounds and slowly begin to calm themselves down. (Source: Pitchfork, 2017). Despite music therapy being a relatively "new" profession---the practice emerged following the First and Second World Wars, as musicians would travel to hospitals to perform for recovering soldiers---the use of music therapy and the healing effects of music cannot be dismissed.

Occasionally, traditional talk therapy can have an adverse effect on trauma patients. According to Pitchfork's article "Can Music Heal Trauma? Exploring the Therapeutic Powers of Sound" (2017), "Trauma survivors often have unbearably vivid fragmented images, sounds, or smells lingering in their psyche. For many, traditional talk therapy offers little relief, since those sensations are embedded beneath the language brain." As an alternative, music therapists are often sought out to help soothe trauma patients.

Music therapists employ a variety of techniques to help their patients, depending on what the patient needs. Therapists will sometimes put on a recording of a song and encourage their patient to move and/or dance; others will encourage patients to make their own music, sitting them down at the piano and allowing them to improvise. Such activities may seem aimless or unproductive, but the data doesn't lie: The Mayo Clinic even suggests that playing music for Alzheimer or dementia patients can provide emotional and behavioral benefits. So what does all of this evidence mean for the rest of us dealing with stress and anxiety? How can we incorporate the benefits of music therapy into our own lives?

The answer is simple: play music. As I'm writing this, I'm listening to David Bowie and feeling much less stressed than I did earlier this morning. Find what works for you, whether it be listening to your favorite music, dancing to your favorite song, or even just playing some piano keys. You don't have to be a good dancer or a concert pianist to enjoy the healing benefits of music---think of these activities as a way of clearing your thoughts and entering a meditative state. When we are engaging in musical activities such as the ones that I just mentioned, we are not only exploring our musical side but are experiencing a healing activity. Remember---when we heal ourselves, we are better able to show up for others.

healing power of music

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