On Music & Healing

Juan Robles-Gil

The use of music as a healing approach can be traced all the way back to the origins of the human species. Prehistoric healers across cultures used specific drumming patterns to induce mental states such as trance and relaxation. Music used in a healing context is evident in biblical scriptures and historical writings of ancient civilizations including those in the Americas, Egypt, China, India, Greece, and Rome.

Ancestral and modern mothers use their voices to sing and hush their babies to sleep every single day. Gym enthusiasts and joggers across the globe swear by their reliable pair of headphones and their favorite energizing playlist. So what is it about music that has such an effect on people throughout their entire lifespan?

In today’s entry, I will discuss the relationship between music and mental health. If you feel that counseling services could be beneficial to you, then feel free to contact Citron Hennessey in Manhattan.


During the course of World War I and II, doctors and nurses started paying attention to the physical effects that music, which was played by volunteer musicians at the time, had on wounded soldiers. Observations of significant changes in blood pressure and heart rate of soldiers who were engaged in either music making or listening during their treatments sparked the curiosity of medical researchers. It also sparked the birth of the field of music therapy.

Since then, thousands of scientific articles have been written on the effects of music and music therapy on a wide range of human-related phenomena. Popular writers such as Oliver Sacks (author of “Musicophilia”) and Daniel Levitin (author of “This Is Your Brain on Music”) have dedicated hundreds of pages to explain the fascinating relationship between music and the brain. Countless others continue to expand the growing body of research to better understand ways to harness that powerful relationship to improve people’s lives.


A curious physical phenomenon known as entrainment [1][2] lies at the core of many applications of music as a form of treatment. Entrainment, to put it simply, is the phenomenon by which two systems, moving in independent cycles, will synchronize with each other and eventually match their inner rhythms. Here’s an example of the word used in a sentence: You entrain to Michael Jackson’s “Beat it” when you bob your head back and forth to the funky bassline. Your heart rate and blood pressure will tend to entrain to the qualities of the music that you listen to (i.e. the faster the music, the faster your heart rate will get) [3]

Another central aspect, seemingly crucial to the understanding of the role of music as a healing tool, is its inherent relationship with our emotional experience.

According to a recent study [4], our cognitive connection to music may have evolved from an older skill: the ability to glean emotion from motion. People will choose the same combination of spatiotemporal features — a certain speed, rhythm, and smoothness — whether pairing a particular emotion with a melody or with a cartoon animation, the study found. But most surprising, the results held true in people from two starkly different cultures: a rural village in Cambodia and a college campus in New England.

The study raises the theory that perhaps our ancestors first learned to interpret emotion from movement — something that would be useful, say, if you encountered an angry saber-tooth cat. Those same brain systems, finely tuned to detect changes in rhythm and speed, could have also evolved to pick up similar changes in sounds, and later, to intentionally exploit this perceptual system by making music. [4]

The emotional connection that music has with our brains also has a cultural dimension that is deeply intertwined with the development of our memories and our sense of identity. On my next entry, I will elaborate on this and talk about ways in which you can use entrainment and the emotional dimensions of your relationship to music to cope with symptoms of anxiety and depression. Stay tuned.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entrainment_(chronobiology)

[2] Entrainment (physics)

[3] http://yadda.icm.edu.pl/yadda/element/bwmeta1.element.baztech-e9bb83c1-e7c9-445c-8425-d22214a83945/c/2013_v22_Nomura.pdf

[4] http://m.pnas.org/content/110/1/70

[5] http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2012/12/18/why-does-music-move-us-so/

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