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Music Medicine: Music Medicine in Practice

What's going on?

Advances in neuroscience and brain imaging have allowed researchers to examine what happens in the brain when a person is exposed to music, both passively (listening) and actively (playing an instrument).  Their findings have allowed doctors to use music in a myriad of ways, taking it beyond its more traditional uses in the management of pain and mood disorders to neurology and the treatment of a host of other conditions. Below are a few exciting examples.

Music in the Treatment of Parkinson's Disease

Music in the treatment of Parkinson's Disease is one of the frontiers of Music Medicine. Neurologists believe that the human brain is especially attuned to highly rhythmic music, perhaps moreso than any other mammal, as demonstrated in our unique tendency to automatically tap our feet or otherwise move in sync with the beat.  Music triggers a network of neurons to translate the rhythmic cadence into organized physical movement.  In patients with bradykinesia (difficulty initiating movement), music can release them from their frozen state.  Patients with balance problems coordinate their steps to synchronize with the music, improving their gait and stride.  And in patients with tremors, music with slow rhythms eases muscle bursts and jerky motions.

Participants in group music sessions, usually improvising on percussion instruments such as drums and cymbals, but also pianos and xylophones, show improved motor control.  Participants often report that their motion becomes more fluid and their tremors lessen.  These improvements are evident not only during and immediately after a session, but endure from session to session.  However the symptoms do eventually return, after about two months of non-participation.  Therefore continued participation is encouraged.  


Shulman, Matthew. Music as Medicine for the Brain. U.S. News and World Report. July 17, 2008

Music in Stroke Rehabilitation

Music is being used in stroke rehabilitation to help patients with aphasia. Because the area of the brain that processes music overlaps with its speech networks, melodic intonation therapy can be successful in transferring neuronal pathways, or creating new ones, eventually restoring the patient's ability to speak.  


Shulman, Matthew. Music as Medicine for the Brain. U.S. News and World Report. July 17, 2008

Lim KB, Kim YK, Lee HJ, Yoo J, Hwang JY, Kim JA, Kim SK. The Therapeutic Effect of Neurologic Music Therapy and Speech Language Therapy in Post-Stroke Aphasic Patients. Annals of Rehabilitation Medicine. 2013 Aug;37(4):556-62.

Norton, Andrea; Zipse, Lauren; et al. Melodic Intonation Therapy: Shared Insights on How it is Done and Why it Might Help. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.  2009 July; 1169: 431-469.

Music Therapy for Autism

Because music is multi-modal, engaging several areas of the brain, such as motor skills, communication, and cognition, it is extremely well suited for use as therapy for individuals with autism.  Music encourages social interaction.  Children display more emotional expression and social engagement in play sessions which incorporate music than in sessions without music. 

As with Parkinson's disease and stroke patients, music has been proven to increase body awareness and coordination, and improve the communication skills of people with autism, as well as increase their focus and attentions spans, and improve their social behaviors.


Kaplan, Ronna. Music Therapy for Individuals with Autism. The Huffington Post. 2012 Nov. 21.

Littlefield, Andrew. 2012 Sept. 14.

Srinivasan, Sudha M.; Bhat, Anjana N. A Review of  "Music and Movement" Therapies for Children with Autism: Embodied Interventions for Multisystem Development. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience. 2013. 7: 22.

The Marriage Counselor

After years of hiding the fact that the love is gone, the last child moves out of the house and Mom and Dad announce they are getting a divorce. The kids are distraught and hire a marriage counselor as a last resort at keeping their parents together.

 The counselor works for hours, tries all of his methods, but the couple still won't talk to each other. Finally, he goes over to a closet, brings out a beautiful upright bass and begins to play. After a minute or so, the couple starts talking.

 They discover that they're not actually that far apart and decide to give their marriage another try. The kids are amazed and ask the counselor how he managed to do it.

He replies, "I've never seen anyone who wouldn't talk through a bass solo."