A neuroscientist who is leading a study on musical therapy explains how music can heal us even when we are sad

When I hear Shania Twain’s You’re Still the One, it brings me back to my 15-year-old self, playing on Dad’s computer. I was cleaning up after he [tried to take his own life]. While I was cleaning up, he had been listening to the album. Every time I hear this song, the anger and sadness come flooding back.

Music’s healing power has re-emerged as a topic of interest. Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience have confirmed the therapeutic effects of music, such as brain re-engagement and emotional regulation. The integration between music therapy and conventional mental health treatment has grown.

These musical interventions have been proven to be effective in helping people who have cancer, chronic discomfort, and depressive disorders. It can help alleviate the debilitating effects of stress, such as increased blood pressure and muscle tension.

We are seeing an unprecedented level of mental illness in all age groups, from the young to the old, with enormous costs for families, communities, and economies. This series will investigate the causes of this crisis and provide an update on the most recent research that can help improve mental health in all stages of life.

As both a longtime music fan and neuroscientist, I believe music has a special status among all the arts in terms of the breadth and depth of its impact on people. One critical aspect is its powers of autobiographical memory retrieval – encouraging often highly personal recollections of past experiences. We can all recount an instance where a tune transports us back in time, rekindling recollections and often imbuing them with a range of powerful emotions.

The transformative effect of music therapy can sometimes open a floodgate for dementia patients. They may recall cherished childhood memories, the aromas and flavors of their mother’s cooking, or lazy summer afternoons with the family, or the energy and atmosphere of a music concert.

A widely-shared video by the Asociacion Musica para Despertar is believed to feature the Spanish/Cuban ballerina Martha Gonzalez Saldana, though there is some debate over her identity. This former prima ballerina is moved by the music of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake to perform some of her old dance movements on camera.

Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake has reactivated this former ballerina’s motor responses.

We want to answer specific questions such as why sad or bittersweet music plays a unique therapeutic role for some people, and which parts of the brain it “touches” compared with happier compositions. We are interested in answering specific questions, such as why bittersweet or sad music has a therapeutic effect on some people and what parts of the brain this “touches”, compared to happier compositions.

Advanced tools, such as high density electroencephalogram monitors (EEG), allow us to record the real-time “talking” between brain regions as someone listens to a song or to a symphony. These areas are stimulated in different ways by the music. From its emotional content, to its melodic structures, to its lyrics, to its rhythmic patterns.

Everyone’s response is unique, which is why we asked our participants to describe the feelings they get when listening to a certain piece of music, including how it can evoke deep introspection or recollections.

We hope that neuroscience can help us change this. Ludwig van Beethoven said: “Music, the incorporeal entry into the higher worlds of knowledge, which encompasses mankind but which mankind is unable to comprehend.”

Music therapy: A brief history

The origins of music predate language and rational thought. The Paleolithic Era, more than 10,000 ago, was when humans first used music to communicate and express emotions. The archeological finds are ancient instruments such as bone flutes, percussion instruments and stone percussions. They also include markings indicating the acoustically most resonant places within a cave, as well as paintings that depict musical gatherings.

In the Neolithic Era, music underwent significant developments in permanent settlements around the globe. The discovery of musical instruments such as harps, complex percussion instruments and harps in excavations has highlighted the importance of music in religious ceremonies, social gatherings, and in this period.

Prehistoric musical instrument. Musee d’Archeologie Nationale/WikimediaCC BY-NC-SA

Plato and Aristotle, ancient Greek philosophers, both acknowledged music’s centrality in human life. Plato described music as an enjoyable and healing stimulus. He said: “Music is moral law.” It is the soul of the universe. It gives wings to the brain, and flight to imagination.

Many cultures throughout history have recognized the healing power of music. Ancient Egyptians used music in their religious ceremonies and considered it therapeutic. Native American tribes such as the Navajo used music and dancing in their healing ceremonies, relying heavily on drumming, chanting, and stomping to promote spiritual and physical wellbeing. According to traditional Chinese medicine, specific musical rhythms and tones were thought to balance qi (the body’s vital energy) and improve health.

The Christian church played a pivotal role in popularizing “music for masses” during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. During church services, worshippers could participate in communal music through congregational hymn singing. This form of musical expression served as a powerful tool for religious teaching and devotion, connecting a large non-literate group with their faith. has recognized that communal singing is a powerful therapeutic experience.

Benjamin Rush. NYPL Digital Gallery/Wikimedia

Early investigations into the nervous system of humans coincided with the rise of music therapy. Pioneers like American physician Benjamin Rush, who signed the US Declaration of Independence in 1776, recognized the therapeutic potential of musical therapy to improve mental health.

Samuel Mathews, one of Rush’s former students, began to conduct experiments on the effects of music on the nervous systems. This laid the foundations for modern music therapy. E. was able to build on this early work. Thayer Gaston promoted music therapy as a legitimate field in the US. Similar efforts were made in the UK, where Mary Priestley contributed significantly to the development and respect of music therapy.

These early discoveries have continued to influence neuroscientists and psychologists for decades. One of the most notable is the late great author Oliver Sacks, who noted that:

Music can help us overcome depression or even bring us to tears. It’s a remedy, tonic, and orange juice for your ears.

The “Mozart Effect”

It was not only my profession but also my deepest passion. Music taught me how to deal with the challenges of life and to express my emotions safely. Music has taught me to transform my feelings, both pleasant and painful, into beautiful things.

Neuroscientists are not the only ones who can study and understand all of the brain mechanisms that play a role in music listening and its effects. Dimana Karadzhieva, who studied at the National School of Music of Sofia in Bulgaria after starting to play the piano when she was five years old, is part of our diverse team. Her combined knowledge of music and cognitive process, as a cognitive psychology, helps us to understand the complex mechanisms by which piece affects our minds (and soothes them). This is a difficult task for a neuroscientist.

Our research began with the “Mozart Effect” – the idea that complex musical compositions and classical music stimulate brain activity, which in turn improves cognitive abilities. The results of subsequent research have mixed, with some claiming that the Mozart effect was not real. However, the work we did has led to significant improvements in our understanding of the effects of music on the brain.

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