“The emotional connection to music is huge, especially for those living with dementia,” says Krings. As part of dementia care, music therapy may be used to help build connections and socialize in a meaningful way with peers, decrease the depression and anxiety that’s common in dementia patients, and relieve some of the symptoms of disease progression, she explains. In a meta-analysis of eight studies, music therapy — specifically, listening to music and singing interventions — improved short-term quality of life in those with dementia and lessened depression symptoms long term.
The act of listening to music, which involves sounds, rhythm, and lyrics, activates much of the brain, as well as brings about changes in neuroplasticity, the authors explain.
(Neuroplasticity is how neurons and neuronal networks in the brain can create new connections, per Britannica.) What’s more, listening to beloved music may elicit positive emotions that improve mood and lessen stress.
Think about how one song can change how you feel. Music therapy can be complementary to a mental health care plan, along with other forms of therapy. In this instance, “we use music to remember who we are and find our values,” says Kristen Stewart, assistant director at The Louis Armstrong Department of Music Therapy at Mount Sinai in New York City.
In a meta-analysis that spanned 55 randomized controlled trials, music therapy significantly reduced depressive symptoms, compared with control groups. There are various music therapy methods and tools available, and the study identified two that made the biggest difference in helping to soothe symptoms: recreative music therapy (e.g., playing instruments or singing along to songs) and guided imagery and music (wherein music helps evoke images as one explores their thoughts and feelings).
In addition, further research — in this case, a meta-analysis of 32 studies and 1,924 participants total — found that music therapy decreased anxiety in people of all age groups post-session, though the benefits weren’t long-lasting. Music may temporarily distract from worries, helping to replace challenging thought patterns with pleasant notions, and build therapeutic connections between the provider and the individual, researchers explain.
Think about how you feel when you listen to your favorite song. Happy? At peace? A little bit lighter? Music on its own (outside of music therapy) can make a big difference in your stress levels. According to one recent study, listening to “happy” music regularly during the COVID-19 pandemic was associated with maintaining a better mood, especially in those who reported higher stress levels at the time. In short, people can use music to help regulate their emotions and possibly to put themselves into a desired state (e.g., calm, relaxed, or motivated).
Attending a music therapy session in a more formal way had a “medium-to-large effect on stress-related outcomes,” compared with control groups, according to a meta-analysis of 47 studies. A music therapist can evaluate the needs of an individual and then tailor the music intervention specifically to them in the moment. That may be even more effective in relieving stress, compared with listening to music on one’s own, note the authors. That doesn’t discount the above findings, but rather suggests you can use music in a variety of ways to manage stress.
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurological condition that affects movement and coordination, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation. Music therapy may be used as a complementary therapy for Parkinson’s, with a variety of potential benefits, including enhancing motor function, communication, swallowing, and breathing, as well as improving quality of life and mood, according to a systematic review. When it comes to vocal skills, breathing, and swallowing, group singing is a tool within music therapy that may strengthen those functions.
Additionally, music may help people with Parkinson’s persevere through difficult tasks, including rehabilitation and strengthening exercises. “Music may help improve mental endurance by providing the motivating factor that helps people distract themselves from discomfort during exercise,” says Krings. Exercise is important in Parkinson’s for mobility, flexibility, and balance, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation.
Receiving a cancer diagnosis and the subsequent treatment can be extremely tough — mentally and physically. Music therapy may be able to ease some of that burden. According to a systematic review and meta-analysis of 30 studies on adults with cancer, music therapy helped reduce anxiety, depression, and the amount of pain medication needed during active treatment, compared with control groups; among people in palliative care, music therapy improved quality of life, spiritual well-being, pain, and stress. When used therapeutically, music may help one cope with the stress of having the disease, stabilize one’s mood, and help manage certain symptoms. Music can also be a spiritual support, providing comfort in times of uncertainty, note the authors.
Additionally, it’s not just adults with cancer who may benefit, but children too. Another review found that music therapy may help decrease distress in younger patients as they undergo tests and procedures that may feel foreign or scary. In addition to reducing anxiety and stress, music therapy may also improve heart rate function, oxygen levels, and blood pressure, the authors note.
Music therapy can be used in different ways for someone in hospice care who is processing the end of their life. “It can be a joyful, active music-making time with the patient and their families, or it can be a grief-driven time where music is there to provide support and act as a coping mechanism,” Krings says.
Often, in a therapeutic setting, providers may match music to a patient’s mood state and then change the music to stimulate mood shifts and enhance a sense of well-being. For instance, a music therapist might align a tune to a patient’s agitation or irritability by playing exciting or angry music, explains Krings. “Then, over the time of the session, we bring the music down to a calming and relaxing space. It’s interesting to see how music can lead people in nonpharmacological ways to become less anxious,” she says.
In one small randomized-controlled trial out of Germany, 84 hospitalized patients in palliative care were divided into two groups: One group received two sessions of live music-based relaxation exercises, and the control group listened to a verbal relaxation exercise. The authors found live music to be more effective in promoting relaxation and a peaceful state of mind in terminally ill patients, compared with spoken cues.