Mozart as Medicine: The Healing Power of Music

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the healing power of medicine

Written by James Clear.

David Binanay started playing the violin when he was five.

By age 12, he performed at the world-famous Carnegie Hall in New York City and, soon after, at the White House.

In 2006, fresh off graduation from Villanova University, Binanay was positioned perfectly to build his life around music. He had just moved into his own place and started a job at a high-end violin shop.

That’s when he noticed the bleeding.

Music and the mind

It was a gastrointestinal bleed. Binanay had experienced one before and he called his mom to let her know what was happening. She wanted to help, but David stopped her.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m going to handle it myself,” he said.

This was the first time Binanay tried to handle a serious health issue on his own. When he arrived at the hospital, things began to spiral out of control. His hands started shaking and his mind began to separate from reality.

“It was my first psychotic episode,” David recalls.

The situation went downhill fast. After resolving the bleeding issue and leaving the hospital, Binanay’s psychosis continued. He started having delusions and became fearful of everything.

“I couldn’t even walk into a grocery store because of the fear,” he says. “I didn’t really know what I was afraid of, but I feared for my life. In the span of one week, I went from being normal to having a complete psychotic breakdown.”

This was the peak of David’s psychosis, but his battle was just beginning. He would struggle with schizophrenia for the next five years. His medications worked, but David had trouble sticking to them.

There was one thing, however, that always seemed to help.

“My dad would look at me and say, ‘Dave, go get your violin.’”

The healing power of music

Music stopped the pain. “Every time I played, I noticed a change,” David said. “I would channel my emotions through my music. The fear would turn to music. It would turn to sound.”

A new medication schedule helped too. David found it much easier to stick to his medication when he switched from pills to injections, which he only needed once per month.

Today, after a five-year battle, Binanay has made a full recovery. He plays his violin up to 10 hours per day and runs a non-profit, Music Over Mind, that performs free music shows at hospitals for people suffering from mental illness.

“Music has been my catalyst for recovery,” Binanay says. “It has been a 180-degree turnaround. From complete loss to total rebirth. I recently got married. I have my own place with my wife. I feel like I’m a better person than before my illness.”

David Binanay’s story raises an interesting series of questions. Can music help heal us? What role does music play in our health and happiness? Can music be a form of medicine?

Let me share what I’ve learned about the health benefits of music.

photo credit: Nadya Johnson

photo credit: Nadya Johnson

The stroke victim who was healed by music

In her book The Power of Music, author Elena Mannes shares the story of a stroke patient who has lost the ability to speak.

After struggling to re-learn normal speech patterns, the patient makes a breakthrough by singing her words rather than saying them.

This approach is known as melodic intonation therapy, and it engages the right side of the brain more than normal speech.

As a result, this different section of the brain can stand in as a replacement for the normal language area and be used to communicate through song. [1]

At first glance, this story may seem like a very specific way to combine music and health, but it actually provides a good indication of the state of music therapy.

There are many stories about music being used to help Parkinson’s patients move, autistic children focus and learn, or multiple sclerosis patients reduce spasms. These stories, however, have no research studies supporting them.

My guess is that these are individualized results which, although true, are difficult to extrapolate to the entire population.

That said, there are a handful of health benefits of music that are well-accepted and scientifically proven.

The research: music as medicine

First, music can be used to relieve pain in patients. For example, surgery patients at the Cleveland Clinic who listened to recorded music saw a 4x decrease in post-surgical pain.

Music has also been shown to reduce the amount of anesthesia needed during operations. [2, 3]

Second, music can be used to relieve stress and anxiety. Calming music decreases blood pressure, steadies the heart rate, and eases stress.

Research has shown that music can reduce stress for patients undergoing surgeries and colonoscopies, for children undergoing medical procedures, and for patients with coronary heart disease. [4-7]

There is also preliminary evidence showing that listening to music can boost immune system function by decreasing stress hormones and increasing growth hormones.

These changes should prime the body to be in a better state for recovering from and resisting illnesses, but the research is weak thus far and needs further investigation. [8]

Music and happiness

Finally, there are a range of studies that link music to happiness and pleasure in different ways.

Despite the differences in the individual studies, the scientific consensus on the topic is that music does stimulate the same areas of the brain that trigger pleasure in other activities.

A range of studies have found that listening to pleasurable music stimulates the mesocorticolimbic system in the brain, which is the same pleasure center that is triggered by humor, tasty food, and even cocaine.

In this way, you could say that music is like a drug. If music makes you happy, then it might be possible that it is good for your health. [9-12]

These benefits sound great, but is music unique in providing these benefits? Not really.

Given the current state of the research, it is not known if music is any better at healing than other alternatives. Music is not the only way to relieve pain or reduce stress.

Music might work well for Person A while meditation is better for Person B and deep breathing or exercise help Person C. If nothing else, however, music is another tool at your disposal when you want to relieve pain, reduce stress, and promote healing.

Featured, GD Ticker, Green Divas Health & Beauty, Healthy Living, Inspiration

About the author / 

Rebelle Society

Rebelle Society is an online magazine reporting ideas, acts of creative rebellion and celebrating the art of being alive. Subscribe to our newsletter and connect with us on FacebookTwitterPinterest & Instagram.

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