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October 20, 2020

Music and medicine

The fascinating science behind using music as medical therapy

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It’s been said that music fills the gaps left by language. It sets the mood. When you watch a movie, the dark minor chords prepare you for the shark to surge out of the water. Sweet violins drift into that first kiss, a soft lullaby sends the baby adrift on a cloud, and we all cheer when trumpets announce that our favorite underdog Rocky Balboa has conquered the steps of the Art Museum. Tune in to “Your Radio Doctor” this Sunday at 10 a.m. to learn the fascinating science that supports the use of music as medicine.

Dr. Alexander Pantelyat, Assistant Professor of Neurology, is the Co-Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Music and Medicine Center. He explains that singing, playing an instrument or just listening to music, can activate more areas of the brain at the same time than almost any other human activity. About 50 different areas of the brain are activated in response to listening or playing music.

For example, in the Emotion and Reward Pathway of the brain – listening to a pleasant song will activate some of the same areas that are activated by drugs of abuse like cocaine and alcohol. It can be activated by music just as strongly.

In addition, listening and playing can activate a host of other areas that are involved in paying attention and speech production. Often, we think of music, (especially with prior musical training) as another language. It can activate areas that produce movement, as well as other areas that process sound, help us pay attention and help us remember. Autobiographical memory is linked strongly to listening to music.

Emerging studies also indicate long term benefits. Taking music or singing lessons (especially when you’re young) can actually protect from some aspects of hearing loss later in life. A study from Chile this month (Frontiers in Neuroscience) showed that after as little as two years of music lessons and attending orchestra, children have measurable changes in the brain that show that their attention skills are better than their peers who were not exposed to lessons. An increase in attention improves their performance in math and science and enhances language skills, both with a primary language and learning a secondary language.

In older people, patients with Parkinson’s disease who sing in a choir can improve the loudness of their voice, which has a positive impact on their ability to communicate. They report better moods and reduced anxiety as a result of participating in group music activities such as guitar lessons, singing in a choir or being in a drum circle.

A number of studies that include different illnesses, including dementia (particularly Alzheimer’s), show that mood and anxiety can be improved.

Rhythm-based therapies have also shown promise. Just as rhythm provides order in a piece of music, our own inner ‘timing’ gives order to our natural body movements and is also connected to the basics of language. Listening to music recruits motor associated regions of the brain, further connecting it to movement and development, and is showing promise as therapy for patients with autism spectrum disorder (Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation).

Think of it this way. When you’re at a concert and the band claps, you join within 3 seconds. Hearing a beat makes you ‘tap’ because your brain is tapping. The sound fires activity in the brain that has been seen in studies including EEG and MRI.

This synchronized tapping can be therapeutic. Rhythmic entertainment can help patients with Parkinson’s, stroke, or multiple sclerosis walk better by improving some aspects of their walking and balance. In a study of Parkinson’s patients last year, this kind of rhythmic auditory stimulation (walking to a metronome) with a strong march-like beat, can actually reduce occurrence of falls.

Classical music has historically been used in clinical research. Mozart’s “Sonata for Two Pianos” (K448) has been included in many studies and shown to enhance cognitive function, reducing epilepsy in children. But the choice of music may vary with each patient.

Dr. Pantelyat is an accomplished musician himself, and playing the violin takes his mind off anything that’s adding stress on a given day.

After learning the basic science, you’ll also hear from two members of Philadelphia Royalty – Mr. Sid Mark, legendary host of “The Sounds of Sinatra” and the one and only “Geator with the Heater,”Mr. Jerry Blavat. These are men who provide the music and we welcome the therapy.

Personally, I am always reassured by the calming voice of Sid Mark when he brings the “Sounds of Sinatra” every Sunday morning, helping us relax before we face another busy week. And I’m always in a better mood after being energized by the “The Geator.” His timeless tunes gets you up on your feet as your brain ‘taps’ to his discophonic beat. Also worth noting, these positive therapies have no negative side effects!

The future is very bright. The National Institute of Health is paying attention to the idea of music for the purpose of healing. Last year they funded $20 million in projects that study music, its impact on the brain and the entire body, and how it can be harnessed to benefit humanity.

Tune in at 10 a.m. every Sunday morning to “Your Radio Doctor” on WPHT, talk radio station 1210 AM or listen on All shows are posted on

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