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The medicinal power of music

A symphony of therapeutic solutions is changing the way people now manage some major health and wellbeing issues.

The Selwyn Institute has introduced music therapy in a pilot study at its Selwyn Anchorage Day Centre led by Shari Storie—an Auckland-based, New Zealand Registered Music Therapist. Based on the positive results to date additional funding donated by The Charles Rupert Stead Charitable Trust will extend the program.

Selwyn’s first experience in the field was through the Music Moves Me Trust in residential care facilities in the Waikato starting in 2017. A further foray came from a connection with Singapore-based I’m Soul who have an innovative high-technology offering called Soundbeam.

“The company presented at last year’s Gerontology Nursing Conference and, given the clear benefits it offered, we bought the system. Using this in a variety of settings convinced us that music has a positive role to play in helping us help others. From this initial application the momentum grew to where our work with Shari can be applied for dementia treatment,” says Hilda Johnson-Bogaerts, Director of the Selwyn Institute.

Shari celebrates the initiatives. “Music therapy is unique because it incorporates evidence-based live music-making experiences and interactions that are distinct from listening to music or entertainment. A registered music therapist has Masters level training that enables them to safely and effectively use music to support people’s health and well-being, addressing physical, cognitive, spiritual, social and emotional needs.”

The Selwyn Foundation is not alone in recognizing the long-standing benefits of music not just for brain health but also equally as an essential part of life and engagement. The discovery started centuries ago.

In 1697 British poet William Congreve pronounced that music has charms to soothe a savage beast.

In 2009, The United Kingdom Department of Health as part of its National Dementia Strategy concluded that music therapy can significantly improve and support the mood, alertness and engagement of people with dementia, can reduce the use of medication, as well as helping to manage and reduce agitation, isolation, depression and anxiety, overall supporting a better quality of life.

In 2019 in New Zealand, National Music Therapy Week has launched an initiative aptly titled Put the Beat Back in Your Step supporting mental health and wellbeing in the country.

The inference is clear—regardless of time, space or place, music has powers that transcend mere notes on a page. The UK study identified potential cost-saving benefits to the ‘beat going on’ in treatment situations. Further research, investigating the clinical and cost effectiveness of non-pharmacological methods of treatment, has produced positive outcomes.


Body, mind and soul

A separate European study published in 2018 recorded that providing people with dementia, who are in institutional care, with at least five sessions of a music-based therapeutic intervention probably reduces depressive symptoms. Furthermore music improves overall behavioural problems at the end of treatment. It may also enhance emotional well-being, quality of life and anxiety reduction.

A Japanese study produced in the same year demonstrated that different types of music produced tangible health changes and benefits beyond dementia treatment.

Heart Rate Variability showed lower autonomic nervous system activity and thus lower stress levels. People are more relaxed when music is playing. The research showed that listeners' blood flow volume tended to rise when listening to classical music, demonstrating a relaxing effect.

The study also compared the difference in body surface temperature before the music played and while listening to the music. On average, participants’ body surface temperature rose after listening to both classical and healing music, signaling greater relaxation. Of note, the increase in body surface temperature after listening to healing music is particularly pronounced.

The authors made the following observation to support their findings:

Taken together, these results demonstrate that listening to music soothes the body, mind, and soul. As the poet and author Berthold Auerbach once stated, “Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” While he likely didn’t have scientific research on his mind, the findings of this study support his sentiment.

Shari has her own favourite quote about her work and her music. “I love Friedrich Nietzche's philosophy that, without music, life would be a mistake. Being able to carve a career using music to connect with what people need is a spectacular privilege.”

  1. The National Dementia strategy in England BMJ 2009;338:b931
  2. Music-based therapeutic interventions for people with dementia: van der Steen JT, Smaling HJA, van der Wouden JC, Bruinsma MS, Scholten RJPM, Vink AC, Cochran Medical Information, 23 July 2018
  3. A Study into Blood Flow, Heart Rate Variability, and Body Surface Temperature While Listening to Music. Kenichi Itao, Makoto Komazawa, Hiroyuki Kobayashi. January 2018. Health 10(02):181-188.
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