Can Music Really Be a Benefit to Health?

Seven years ago, when MediMusic Co-Founder and CEO Gary Jones, first began extolling the potential of dispensing music as medicine, this was a question that healthcare practitioners would repeatedly ask him – nowadays, they don’t. He explains why.

We have all self-medicated with music at some point in our lives. Whether it is listening to relaxing tracks on a lazy Sunday morning, or turning up the volume for some up-tempo music when getting ready to go out for the night, music can be simultaneously cathartic and stimulating. It can lift the soul, calm our anxieties, or keep a mood constant.

There is no question that music and health have a strong, symbiotic relationship. Great thinkers through history, from the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, through to Friedrich Nietzsche, George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy and Albert Einstein have all noted its impact (Einstein even wrote a book called A Short History of Music). My favourite quote is probably that of civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King, who recognised music’s power to heal, claiming; “My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary.”

Furthermore, since the early 1960s, thousands of peer-reviewed studies and clinical trials have investigated the impact music has on humans – both psychological and physiological. In fact, the PubMed Bio Science library has over 25,000 documents that demonstrate the benefit of music to a multitude of health cases, from mental health, dementia, pain relief, autism, palliative care, Parkinson’s, physio-recovery and many more. In fact, there are no illnesses or uses to which a benefit cannot be brought.

Historic Challenges

Notwithstanding Music Therapy is an established psychological clinical intervention, why has there been a long-term lack of conviction about the broader use of music within healthcare? This can be explained by a mix of three core factors –

  • Perception of Music – This is undoubtedly the largest barrier, brought about by the populous opinion that music is just an artform – yet in fact, it is a unique combination of multiple sciences, perceived by the brain as a natural language with the resulting physiological response being innate to us all – irrespective of our musical taste. These sciences represent a complex relationship between physics and maths – without which music would not exist; sociology and psychology that dictate our musical influences, consumption, and memories; as well as neurology and physiology that determine how music influences our brain and physio-endocrine systems.
  • Restricted evidence gathering – By their very nature, music therapy sessions tend to be short interventions, either as a small group or one-to-one session dependent on a single clinician and their opinion as to the outcome – rather than any measured physiological markers. The result being an insufficient lack of meaningful evidence-based data to drive the start, yet alone scale, the broader use of music. In addition, academic research trials are frequently small in sample size too so compounding the issue.
  • Complexities of the Brain – The brain responds to music more than any other stimulus. In simple terms, whilst our listening experience appears to be a whole, the brain actually has 10 key areas that are influenced by the component parts so ‘splits’ the music when processing it. A piece of music consists of tempo, rhythm, harmony, the resulting relationship between rhythm and harmony, and events like musical onset where a chord or instrument is struck. All effecting the relevant brain areas both individually and as a combined whole. For example, the left brain deals with lyrics, the right all music. The Auditory Cortex is fundamental in the first part of the process when listening to sound by driving the perception and analysis of tone and the Nucleus Accumbens and Amygdala, facilitate the emotional response to music. Collectively the core areas of influence are known as the Limbic system and as the late, great neurologist Oliver Sacks said in his book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, “Music is part of being human.”

If we take the sum of challenges from the above three points along with the healthcare sector requirement for evidence-based data, to underpin any change of adoption and scalability, it is clear to see why music has previously failed to meet any requirements that would enable it to be dispensed as a drug.

A New World

Today, there exists a very real opportunity for the ability to dispense music as a drug that is creating an increasing demand. The reasons for this have one thing in common that being advances in technology or their net effect –

  • Music for All – Central to the overall opportunity change is the advent of digital music and streaming services such as the likes of Spotify, that has created a level playing field by making the same large catalogue of music available to all.
  • Fingerprinting – Then there is the genesis of Music Information Retrieval (MIR) algorithms. These are extraordinarily complex mathematical processes that when exposed to the DNA of a digital music file extract its features, as defined by physics – such as audio frequency range, loudness, tempo, musical key and so on. The resulting data sets are then combined to create a final score or fingerprint that represents the music’s relevance to a particular need or requirement.
  • Dementia – The extensive press coverage focused on the benefits of music to those with dementia and the resulting raised profile has positioned the potential health benefits of music as a mainstream consideration including use cases in which pain and anxiety are prevalent – such as dentistry, mental health through to pre/post-operative scenarios and beyond.
  • Monitoring – The prevalence of wearables that can measure physiological markers, such as heart rate and O2 levels, now make the measurement of a response to music extremely easy to define via a bio-feedback loop.
  • Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning – By far the biggest game changer. Using data – representing music consumed for a healthcare need – and the resulting physiological response AI & ML has the incredible potential to not only support and improve academic research, but also dynamically adjust fingerprints thereby defining what music is used – the resulting refinement creating a service with greater accuracy, and on a scale, than would be possible by human intervention.

The net result being an evidence-based granularity that would enable music to finally be dispensed as a drug. Whilst the latter may seem like an audacious claim it is worth noting that the acknowledged benefits of AI & ML are making it the fastest technology adoption in healthcare. Google recently proved this by demonstrating an accuracy in predicting breast cancer that was 11.5% greater than that of conventional radiologists.

These technology-driven changes have created an exponentially growing desire by the healthcare sector to default to music in their day-to-day activities. This makes for an extremely exciting future!

In my next article, I will look in more detail at the parts of the human physiology influenced by music and what that leads to.

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