July 27, 2019

How the Human Brain Is Hardwired for Music

Sandra Blackmer, Adventist Review

Music is much more than entertainment, plenary speaker Bronwen Landless told the more than 800 attendees from 106 countries during the 3rd Global Conference on Health and Lifestyle, held at Loma Linda University, July 9-13, 2019.

“Individually and collectively we as humans recognize the power of music” to motivate, inspire, change, and heal us, Landless said. “It’s a beautiful mystery.”

Music was used therapeutically as far back as 1025 BC in the biblical story of David, when he played his harp for King Saul, said Landless, assistant professor of music therapy at the Shenandoah Conservatory of Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia, United States. “Saul would ‘become refreshed and well, and the distressing spirit would depart from him’” (1 Samuel 16:23, NKJV), she noted.

It was when music as therapy was recognized and used in Veterans Administration (VA) hospitals in the United States in the 1940s, following World War II, that the need for formalized training in the United States became evident, Landless said.

Plenary speaker Bronwen Landless said since biblical times, music has been used therapeutically. “Individually and collectively we as humans recognize the power of music” to motivate, inspire, change, and heal us, she emphasized. Landless addressed the 3rd Global Conference on Health and Lifestyle in Loma Linda, California, United States, on July 10, 2019. [Photo: Adventist News Network]

“An official policy on the use of music in military hospitals stated that music should be used to assist in physical reconditioning, educational reconditioning, resocialization, and neuropsychiatric treatment,” she said. “At that point, most music therapy services were delivered by musicians and hospital workers.”

The National Association of Music Therapy (NAMT) was then established in 1950, formalizing the profession of music therapy in the United States. The establishment of the American Association for Music Therapy followed in 1971, and in 1998 the two associations joined to form the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA).

What Is Music Therapy?

The AMTA defines music therapy as the clinical and evidence-based use of music to accomplish therapeutic goals for patients both individually and in groups, Landless explained. She added that such therapy must be practiced by credentialed professionals who have completed an approved music therapy program.

“Such therapy as a profession is informed by theory from other fields such as medicine, psychology, neurology, and music — as well as research and practice,” she said. “Music therapists engage clients in active participation through playing musical instruments, singing, physical movement, and listening.”

Various forms of music therapy are used to reach such goals as increased socialization and connection, improved memory and recall, improved quality of life, and the maintenance of gross and fine motor skills, Landless explained. Referring to music therapy that involves adolescents working together as a band, Landless noted that the youth “develop skills inherent in playing together such as active listening, teamwork, emotion regulation, and conflict resolution.”

“They are also working toward improved self-esteem through accomplishing something they set out to do and acquiring new skills and self-expression through music,” she added.

Other benefits of music therapy for all age groups include decreased stress, distraction from pain, increased relaxation, and connection with others.

One example of the benefits of music therapy Landless cited was an autistic, nonverbal child “being met in music by the music therapist as they make music together.” This “provides acceptance, connection, and affirmation without either of them having to use words,” she said.

According to Landless, other patients who may be helped by music therapy include those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, attention deficit disorder, cerebral palsy, communication disorders, Down’s syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, mental illness, and learning disorders, among others.

In describing some of the foundational principles of working with a variety of people in the context of music therapy, Landless stated that “using client-preferred music is one of the most important guiding principles and requires music therapists across the world to practice in client-centered ways, consistently exercising cultural sensitivity and humility.

“We therefore use a wide variety of genres to actively engage people in music toward therapeutic ends,” she said.

Landless also stressed the importance of exercising positive intentionality, ethics, and responsibility when using music, both in work and in personal lives.

Difference Between Music and Language 

The difference between music and language, Landless explained, is that “music is found throughout the brain,” whereas language is “localized.” If a lesion occurs in the brain in the language-localized areas, she explained, “significant deficits occur in speech and language.”

“Patients who have experienced strokes and cannot speak are still able to sing all the words to songs,” she said. “Thanks to the neuroplasticity of our brains, we are able to use music to form ‘detours’ around the damaged areas, creating new neural pathways that allow us to rehabilitate speech by starting with singing.”

An Incredible Brain

“We have learned so much, and we have hard evidence that our brains and bodies are hardwired for music,” Landless said. “This provides us with awe-inspiring opportunities for connection, inspiration, and healing.

“What a wondrous fact and mystery.”