On a high note

Posted on 8 June 2017

Music is so much part of the human condition that it shouldn’t be a surprise that it can be good for your health and emotional wellbeing too. A music therapist explains that music therapy is a specialised field that connects the sciences and arts to help alleviate the symptoms of a range of mental and physical conditions.

What is music therapy?

‘Music therapy is an established profession in which music is used within a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs,’ says independent music therapist Karen de Kock.

‘Music therapists in South Africa should be registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA). In all instances, the use of music is clinically informed and adjusted as the therapeutic process unfolds. Music therapy can either be active – where the individual or group takes part by singing, song writing or playing instruments and improvising, or it can be receptive – where the individual or group listens to or “receives” music,’ she explains.

The science behind music and health

While music therapy is not a hard and fast science like surgery or pharmaceuticals, its benefits are similar to some of those associated with exercise or healthy eating, such as an increased sense of wellbeing.

In simplest terms, music releases endorphins – the same morphine-like substance released during exercise, laughter or human bonding. It gives the person a drug-like high without the side effects, and when coupled with the physical exertion of dance, the listener may experience a powerful cocktail of feel-good hormones.

Scientists found that the pleasurable experience of listening to music also releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter, or chemical released by the nerve cells to send signals to other nerve cells. Dopamine works as part of the brain’s ‘reward centre’ and is associated with pleasures that have a strong evolutionary purpose, such as food or sex.

‘We all respond to music in some way,’ says Karen. ‘It can move us physically – tapping a foot or a finger, moving our heads or dancing, or it can move us emotionally – humming or singing. Music therapy postulates that each person has an innate musical ability, from the lowest to highest functioning individuals.’

The health benefits of music

Because listening to music acts as a natural sedative it can also play a role in pain management in hospitals, help to manage pre-operative psychological stress, reduce sedative requirements during spinal anesthesia, decrease perception of pain and improve post-operative recovery, according to a 2014 journal article titled ‘Music and social bonding’.

‘In cases where a person is in a hospital for an extended period of time with a serious illness and less able to move around, music therapy can be used effectively,’ Karen explains. ‘By actively participating with a music therapist on an instrument or singing, a sense of control may be experienced, as well as creating a calm, personal atmosphere in the hospital room.’

While these benefits are present during passive listening, the benefits of music stretch further to aid social engagement and connection, in addition to releasing hormones and feel-good chemicals that help bonding. (Dunbar, 2012, ‘On the evolutionary function of song and dance,’ Oxford University Press).

‘Communication and relationships are at the heart of the music therapy process,’ confirms Karen. ‘Engaging with a therapist or participating in a group activity can be an extremely uplifting, joyful experience’.

She gives the example of depression and the outlet that music provides. ‘People living with certain types of depression or anxiety can find it hard to communicate or express their feelings. Music can offer an outlet for expression, which is often difficult to put into words.’

It’s clear that music can be good for your mind, but is it good for your body too? According to Harvard Health, ‘daily doses of Mozart won’t clean out your arteries or fix a faulty heart valve. But music can help ease your recovery from a cardiac procedure, get you back to normal after a heart attack or stroke, and relieve stress’. They caution that some studies found music to have no medicinal value, and this disparity may be explained by the genre of music used.

The ‘right’ genre

‘Music therapists will first and foremost work with the genre of music that the patient prefers,’ says Karen. ‘After careful analysis of their preferred music and the effect it has on them, an alternative is introduced to offer a different experience (called the iso-principle). Therefore, the “right” music is different for each person.’

As a general rule, Karen either uses calm live music to create an atmosphere of introspection, or she leads drumming groups with the aim of releasing pent-up emotions where the focus is more on loud, energetic music.

In a South African context, music therapy is useful for teenagers who need a positive outlet for frustration and a way to break isolation and express themselves in an acceptable manner, Karen adds.

Diseases where music therapy may assist patients

In addition to anxiety and depression, Karen says music therapy can be used for:

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD): Numerous studies found that children with ASD showed more emotional expression and social engagement during music therapy sessions than in play sessions without music.

Alzheimer’s disease: Music therapy cannot cure dementia, but it can enhance the quality of life for those living with this disease by playing their favourite songs to open a window into memories. A recent study found it may even reverse perceived memory loss and improve cognitive function to a degree.

Parkinson’s disease: Certain types of music stimulate the production of dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters that are diminished in Parkinson’s. Many persons living with the disease have problems with initiation and consecutive movement. The use of rhythm through a structured programme can become a template for organising a series of movements. Research in this field is ongoing.


Karen de Kock initially started offering group sessions in hospitals and clinics in the fields of intellectual and physical disability, but has since branched out to mental healthcare. She serves as clinical placement supervisor in the Masters Programme for Music Therapy at the University of Pretoria. More information on music therapy can be found at The South African Music Therapy Association.

Published in Healthy Life

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