Music Therapy: Science or Art? Or Neither?

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Music therapy sounds like such a great idea. And it actually seems plausible too – we’ve all noticed how a favorite song coming on the radio can be a real mood-lifter. So the idea of music having some kind of physical and/or psychological benefit seems quite rational. But it also raises a number of vexing questions: can we expect the same piece of music that “worked” for one person to do the same for another? Is it possible to fit one kind of music to one kind of treatment (take two Mozart sonatas and call me in the morning), or is it doomed by differences in cultural background and musical taste to something than can never be scientifically measured and codified?

This last question is especially important because while there are licensed music therapists in hospitals and clinics around the world, there are even more people producing their own albums of what they tout as “healing music,” complete with claims about how this music is specially designed to relieve stress or improve your cognition or even your posture. I know a neurologist who works with brain mapping and is seriously studying the utility of different kinds of music in treating neuropsychological conditions, including depression and anxiety. He feels there is something definitely there but he wants to see the science behind it. Until that happens, though, music therapy is very much an improvisatory art. Which means there will be room for both the scientists and the charlatans.

Tell us: What is your experience of music’s emotional and physical affects?