Music and Wellbeing & Music and Rehabilitation

Music has an extraordinary ability to affect people’s lives beyond their immediate understanding. From a social as well as a scientific perspective, music is known to be able to activate multiple areas of the brain, changing internal states, and emotions. Learning music and how to play an instrument is indubitably one of the most complex and rich sensorimotor and multimodal experiences. It can shape both the structure and the functions of human brain – this is what is referred to as music-induced brain plasticity (1).

Within the music neuroscience field, an increasing amount of studies have explored the benefits of music for general wellbeing, as well as more specific uses of music in rehabilitation from different impairments following brain injury. In fact, a transfer effect of music exposure and music-making to other cognitive and emotional domains has been studied and demonstrated in recent years (2), and therefore it has been proven to be a useful and efficient support in rehabilitation therapy. Music’s influence on neurohormonal, cognitive and emotional processes in both healthy and impaired individuals, is particularly important as it helps to improve various sensory, motor, coordinative and emotional disabilities.

Another consideration on music-induced brain plasticity, transferrable to other cognitive processes, is that modern neuroimaging techniques provide the chance to examine structural and functional specialisations in the musician’s brain, across several sensory, motor and higher order association areas. These specialisations correlate with aspects of the training history that support the hypothesis that they are the result, rather than the cause, of skill acquisition. Musicians, in this sense, constitute a model for studying the role of experience in shaping brain processes (3). The fact that music enables re-organisation processes in the brain, promoting neural plasticity, is what makes music therapy such a powerful tool for rehabilitation. Musical properties can be very effective across a range of clinical situations - when used appropriately, music is ethically acceptable, side-effect free and reduces the need for medication. It is intrinsically rewarding, unlikely to negatively interact with other treatments, does not rely on verbal information (especially useful in cases of pre-verbal children, or aphasic patients), can be tailored to personal preferences, and in some cases might provide a cost-effective alternative to pharmacological sedation (4). These are only a few of the reasons why it is highly desirable for music neuroscience and music therapy to collaborate in a music rehabilitation context. Whether with a trained therapist (music therapy) or without (music medicine), music can provide a helpful support during motor, communication, psychosocial and cognitive rehabilitation and for more general wellbeing through the use of rhythmical patterns, improvisation, melodic intonation and the integration of musicality and creativity to facilitate communication. The efficacy of these methods relies on scientifically proven principles, such as the demonstration of perception and action being closely coupled, the sparing of singing abilities at the loss of speech, the ability of music to access internal states and emotions, and the memory pathways and cognitive processes involved in music.

To summarize, the benefits of music are not limited to musical skills, on the contrary, they go well beyond the immediate effects of music listening and music making to produce positive effects on general physical and psychological wellbeing. 

1) Dalla Bella, 2014

2) Altenmüller and Schlaug, 2012

3) Stewart, 2008

4) Loewy et al., 2006