Earlier this year a hospital in Slovakia found a unique way to comfort newborns who had been separated from their mothers for treatment – playing music to them.
Babies in the maternity ward at Kosice-Saca hospital listened to music by Mozart and Vivaldi several times a day to help soothe them. Dr Slavka Viragová, who launched the project, says music therapy also "helps a baby to gain weight, get rid of stress and handle pain better".
This is just one example of the many ways in which music therapy is being used by healthcare professionals to provide comfort and promote healing in patients.
A recent Canadian study led by Sandi Curtis, a music therapy professor at the Concordia University Department of Creative Arts Therapies, found that a project involving musicians from a professional symphony orchestra resulted in a wide range of benefits for hospital patients. "Our study showed how music therapy was effective in enhancing pain relief, comfort, relaxation, mood, confidence, resilience, life quality and wellbeing in patients," Curtis explains.
Another study in the US found music helped decrease blood pressure, heart rate and levels of anxiety in patients suffering from heart disease.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
It helps reduce stress and anxiety, which exacerbate pain. Therefore, anything we do to encourage relaxation helps alleviate pain.
Dr Jeanette Bicknell, author of Why Music Moves Us (Palgrave Macmillan), says that while music can relax us and provide a distraction from pain, some types of music appear to be more effective than others.
In a recent article for the journal Psychology Today, she explains that music chosen by patients themselves is more effective in relieving pain. "Researchers have found significant correlations between certain sonic features of music chosen by patients for pain management, and measurements of pain tolerance and perceived pain intensity," Bicknell says.
The sentiment behind the lyrics counts, too. Regardless of the genre, music expressing contentment was found to be most effective in reducing pain. Bickell says music that listeners find emotionally engaging seems to affect the opioid system, which controls physical pain. Bicknell adds that while further research is needed, she hopes music therapy will become more widely recognised as a low-risk way to promote healing.
Australian singer Olivia Newton-John knows better than most how music can benefit wellbeing. "Writing and listening to music is very healing for me," she explains. "I wrote one album, Gaia, when I had breast cancer and the music was a way for me to heal."
Her recent album Grace and Gratitude Renewed was created to promote "healing, relaxation and meditation".
Newton-John is also on the cusp of opening a Cancer and Wellness Centre in Melbourne, and hopes music therapy will play a role alongside yoga, massage and art therapy.
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