Catterina Seia 13 July 2021 10 min read

The power of music. Social therapy.

Studies are increasingly showing that sound and music stimulate and regulate emotions, attention, cognitive functions, communication and behaviour.

Ever since the earliest history of man, we have been aware of the power music has on the biopsychosocial wellbeing of people.

An increasingly large number of studies are showing that listening to music we enjoy can make us happier and enhance learning, particularly those of a young age.

Sound and music promote connections between the brain’s hemispheres, stimulating and regulating emotions, attention span, cognitive functions, communication and behaviour.

Music “expands” life

Music is actually effective throughout our entire lifespan, in fact as early as the perinatal period, it enhances early cognitive development, active ageing and helps manage and counter many illnesses.

Listening to music frequently can help reduce stress, counteract chronic pain, recuperate motor and neurological functions which have been damaged by a stroke or traumatic events. In the case of children on the autistic spectrum or with attention deficit and language-related difficulties, music is a resource for learning and relationships.

A recent study by the British Academy of Sound Therapy recommends ideally listening to music on a daily basis for individual wellbeing: a session of 78 minutes is required to recover from stress. The latest world congress of the American College of Cardiology recommended listening to 30 minutes of music a day, with eyes closed and sitting down, to help promote recovery from a heart attack.

The National Institute of Health of the USA has accordingly earmarked 20 million dollars for a programme designed to investigate the effects sound has on different illnesses, particularly chronic, degenerative ones, over the next five years.

Musical activities to enhance cognitive functions

A new study published by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, coordinated by Jennie Dorris - a rehabilitation researcher from Pittsburgh University - offers significant clinical results that demonstrate how playing a musical instrument and singing can help counter cognitive decline (Study Finds - May 19, 2021 Playing an instrument, singing can help the brain defend against dementia).

According to the federal American prevention agency, the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), dementia affects over five million people in the US, a figure experts expect to increase to 14 million by 2060.

Researchers at Pittsburgh claim that musical activities that get people involved – such as singing in a choir or playing drums in a circle - stimulate the brains of patients in the early stages of Alzheimer’s or those with slightly impaired cognitive capacities, improving their emotive and mental wellbeing, mood and therefore their quality of life, as well as that of carers.

The scoping review examined data from nine studies involving around 500 people (aged between 60 and 80) suffering from dementia or MCI - Mild Cognitive Impairment. MCI is a neurological disease which does not affect how daily activities are performed but does have effects on mental capacity, and often proves to be an intermediate phase.

One person in five over the age of 65 presents MCI symptoms, and risks developing Alzheimer’s. The most frequent symptoms include forgetting recent events, repeating the same questions, experiencing difficulties in problem-solving tasks and increased distraction.

Changes in lifestyle – like having a hobby, social and cultural life - can improve living conditions.

From patients to their carers, improving caring relationships

The study in question examined experimentation with musical activities lasting between 30 minutes and two hours, with a frequency of one to five sessions a week. It then assessed the impact by monitoring people both before and after the musical sessions.

Improvements in cognitive function, such as anxiety and depression, in older adults with probable MCI or dementia who took part in active music tasks, were tangible and statistically higher than the control group, which was not involved.

The positive impact also has a knock-on effect on personal and professional caregivers.

Taking into account increased lifespans amongst the population and the growth in associated illnesses described by the researchers, it is vital to find ways of preventing and managing these diseases in a way which effectively combines with pharmacological therapy.

Research with promising results

Research into the effects of music is intense. A spin off of the MIT - Massachusetts Institute of Technology of Boston is investing - with the involvement of neuroscientists and music therapists – in applying technological innovation to precision medicine, in order to prescribe customised treatments of listening to pieces of music to treat insomnia and chronic pain.  

An app with a playlist to accompany treatment sessions of oncological patients is about to go live. The brainchild of the University of Cincinnati, its aim is to lessen discomfort during chemotherapy. The pilot project, lasting 18 months, is focusing on women who have undergone surgery for breast cancer.

The Center for Music in the Brain (MIB) of Aarhus University launched the first Summer School in Music Neuroscience in June 2021, following the seventh edition of the Neuroscience and Music Conference.

A recent study published in the British Medical Journal indicates the effectiveness of music as a “drug” which has no side effects and can reduce pre-surgery anxiety, seen in the context of calming therapies administered prior to regional anaesthesia.

We agree with Jennie Dorris, author of the Pittsburgh University study. “Promoting research and offering these programmes on a large scale might help support millions of people with their cognitive and emotive wellbeing, improve quality of life and social cohesion, and reduce healthcare costs.”

A cura di Catterina Seia


Catterina Seia

Co-Founder and President of CCW-Cultural Welfare Center; Co-Founder and Vice President of the Fitzcarraldo Foundation; Vice President of the Fondazione Medicina a Misura di Donna