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Music is one of the oldest forms of therapy, and has been used since the beginning of humankind to influence the body and mind in a positive way. The influence of music on the mental and physical condition has been described already in ancient Greece. Pythagoras, for example, was intrigued by the fact that people liked consonant sounds. He found that harmonic music works soothingly and dissolves ailments and sorrows of the mind, body and soul.

As a mathematician Pythagoras strongly believed in the mathematical nature of music and of its influence on the whole person. He observed that different harmonies could elicit various emotions and spoke of "medicinal music".

Ideas about the power of music in Plato and Aristotle aligned with those of Pythagoras. In their work, they clearly recognize the special effects of music. "Rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul", is a telling quote from the works of Plato.

Although the therapeutic and performance-enhancing effects of music have been informing human evolution for thousands of years, science has only recently begun to unravel the causative pathways behind them.

Not too long ago neuroscientists discovered that listening to music has different effects on the body and brain. These are collectively known as the "Mozart Effect". Due to music’s wide neurological scope, its historical use in traditional medicine and rituals across virtually all cultures, scientists have been increasingly tuning in on the effects of music on health—human and animal, even plants.

It turns out that musical stimulation can modulate the physiological biochemistry and bodily reactions. For example, listening to music has a nontrivial positive effect on cardiac, neurological and immunological parameters.

Complementary rather than alternative

Complementary and alternative therapies are a diverse group of medical and health systems, techniques and products considered not to be part of mainstream or conventional health care because they do not meet clinical efficacy standards.

Alternative therapies are often biologically invasive and expensive, while complementary therapies are as a rule non-invasive and are low-cost. Complementary therapies include massage, acupuncture, fitness and mindfulness techniques but also music and meditation.

Music and pain

In the long list of benefits of music therapy, analgesic effects stand out. This is interesting because pain is a complex and often therapy-resistant phenomenon and its impact on daily life is often substantial. Music makes for a simple intervention for this heavy load and has the ability to affect lives positively across physical, psychological, social and emotional planes.

Because there are no side effects and overdosing is not possible, music is a bio-hack which may be applied structurally and long-term.

How does it work?

The effect of music therapy has to do with stimulating the reward centers, stimulating neurotransmitters like dopamine or the rise of enkephalins and endorphins through the limbic system. But this is not all. Listening to music has far-reaching effects on mood and stimulates almost every part of the brain. The effects are therefore also widespread.

The "mind-body" connection, neural functioning, neuropeptide systems, autonomic immune system, opioids, shifting of attention and the endocrine system—these are all influenced by sounds and in particular meaningfully arranged sound: music.

What it comes down to is that music taps into many of the same systems and biochemical pathways in the brain as are involved in the perception of and coping with pain. Focusing on music stimulates the mind and triggers emotional reactions which effectively compete with the biochemistry of pain. As a result, the relative strength of the pain signal decreases and the body can process the stimuli less well.

Far from all of the effects of music have been mapped in detail. But it is clear that it entails a complex interaction between various body systems. A 2014 survey showed that the effect of music therapy is hardly a placebo effect. The researchers concluded that music is a robust analgesic and that the effects could not be explained by factors that have to do with expectations.

In summary

Evidence for the use of listening to music of personal preference, or the making of music, as complementary therapy is quite large. Music can accordingly be successfully prescribed for several indications.

Because of the broad therapeutic potential and the low-threshold applicability, music therapy can help to improve the quality of life. Music works in both acute and chronic pain, and can be used as a stand-alone, or as part of a combined, therapy.

There is no "best" choice in terms of music. The important thing is that music must reflect personal preferences and styles with which you are familiar. This makes it easier to cognitively and emotionally “get lost” (to speak with Chet Baker) in the rhythms and melodies. It is possible to experiment with music as therapy on your own, but consulting a skilled music therapist obviously belongs to the possibilities as well.