What is music therapy and how does it help patients?

What is music therapy and how does it help patients?

Music, in one form or another, plays an important part in our lives. It has the power to evoke emotions ranging from euphoric highs to melancholic lows and helps us to remember times that mean so much to us.

Due to these reasons, health professionals now use the power of melody and rhythm as an aid to treating patients with a variety of ailments and conditions.

Typically, this will involve a patient being placed along in a room for up to 30 minutes while compositions they are known to enjoy are played to them over a sound system or via headphones.

Music therapy for people with dementia

Currently there are no long-term cures for dementia, but a number of studies have found that music has a soothing effect on patients and can even allow them to recall memories that they would not be able to talk about with normal discussion.

Professor Paul Robertson of the Music Research Institute has studied the role songs and jingles can play in the treatment of people with cognitive impairment and says while some patients can be almost uncontactable through speech, the majority will react positively to music.

"We know that the auditory system of the brain is the first to fully function at 16 weeks, which means that you are musically receptive long before anything else. So it’s a case of first in, last out when it comes to a dementia-type breakdown of memory," he said.

Prof Robertson also recalled a time when he saw a former church organist with advanced dementia get up and start playing a piano perfectly after someone in a group session started signing a hymn.

The Alzheimer's Society has launched a programme called 'Singing for the Brain'. It runs at more than 30 locations across the country and is designed to help improve confidence, self-esteem and communication by getting dementia patients and their carers to engage interactive singing sessions.

Use of music for patients with other conditions

The use of music for treatment purposes is in no way limited to those living with dementia. In fact, it can be used effectively in the long-term care of almost any condition.

According to the American Stroke Foundation, music therapy has been proven to help people who have suffered a stroke to improve their muscle movement, speech, communication, cognitive reasoning, motivation and mood.

A study carried out at the University of Helsinki and the Helsinki Brain Institute in Finland tested the potency of music on 54 patients with right and left hemisphere middle cerebral stroke.

Half of the group were played music each day, while the remainder listened to audio books. After two months, it was discovered that those who had listened to songs had a more positive outlook.

And after three months, music listeners were found to have improved their verbal memory by 60 per cent, compared to just 18 per cent in those who listened to audio books.

Music therapy has also been found to help people with mental health problems, children with autism and those with learning disabilities. Soothing music also helps to lower blood pressure, thus decreasing the chances of a person suffering cardio vascular problems.