Music and Medicine: a New Year, a New Challenge

January 10, 2017
Amy Clements-Cortes PhD MT-BC MT FAMI

Dr Clements-Cortes is an assistant professor, Music and Health Research Collaboratory, University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada; instructor, Wilfrid Laurier University and Ryerson Chang School; music therapist; and registered psychotherapist.


Can you think of a time in history when music was not part of society? I can’t. The significance of music in society and its value to humans is obvious when you understand the integral role that music plays in virtually every culture. That being said, most people do not stop to think about how they could be utilizing this important tool in their daily lives. As a music therapist, I am keenly aware of the many benefits afforded by incorporating music into daily activities.

Throughout history, many links between music and medicine can be found, and music sometimes even played a large role in the healing practices of ancient cultures. Music was used in collaboration with magic and religious rituals as a way to drive disease away from or out of a person by a shaman in African cultures. In Greek mythology, Apollo, the god of music and medicine, used music as a means to recreate harmony and order within a person in order to promote health. In the 18th and 19th centuries, physicians began to introduce music into hospitals, exploring the potential benefits of music in combination with or as an alternative to medicine with specific interest in helping to offset or reduce pain perception.

It was not until just after World War II that the professional discipline of music therapy began, when music educators and musicians started working with veterans receiving rehabilitation following their service. The Canadian Association for Music Therapy (CAMT) was founded in 1974, and today there are over 500 certified music therapists working with persons across the lifespan. Recently, in Ontario, music therapists are also now eligible to apply to the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario and hold the additional credential of Registered Psychotherapist (RP).  The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) has close to 4000 members, and, according to the AMTA (2016) Workforce Analysis, approximately 8% of therapists are working with older adults and those with cognitive impairments, 22% in mental health, and 17% in medical/surgical areas.

But how is it that music works to accomplish these many daily benefits, such as reducing pain perception, fostering a sense of identity and inclusion, and facilitating relaxation? Research has shown that music occupies more of the brain than language and that it is processed in several areas of the brain. In addition, there is a strong body of evidence pointing to the efficacy of music for physiological and psychologic health and wellness.

Here are 3 ways music can impact people, which makes it such a viable tool:  

  • Music can change and evoke moods. For example, if you are having a hard day but then you hear one of your favorite songs, it can instantly change how you are feeling. People react in different ways, of course, but hearing the song may inspire a person to sing along or perhaps move to the beat.
  • Music has the distinct ability to stimulate extra musical associations and remind people of past events, special occasions and places or periods of time. For example, many people have a song they chose for their first dance when they got married. Hearing that song can bring back vivid memories of the day and the feelings associated with the event.
  • Music and movement influence our physiological processes (eg, blood pressure, heart rate, brain waves, breathing). When we hear an external beat, our brain waves entrain that beat and can speed up or slow down our breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate.

So why not take my musical challenge and consciously choose to make music part of your day? There are many simple ways to do this, but here are my top 5 for 2017:

  1. Listen to music while dining, driving, or getting ready in the morning.
  2. Listen to slow paced music as you are preparing to go to sleep.
  3. Sing along to songs while you are doing household chores, such as laundry or dusting.
  4. Use music to motivate your exercise routine.
  5. Make a specialized playlist of your favorite songs to listen to when you are feeling down.

In conclusion, I quote the pop group ABBA, “Thank you for the music.” Cheers to a happy and musical 2017!


Amy Clements-Cortes has extensive clinical experience working with clients across the life span, with a specialty in older adults, dementia, and palliative care. She has authored multiple peer-reviewed publications, including her new 2016 book: Voices of the Dying and Bereaved. She has also given over 100 conference and/or invited academic presentations. Amy is president of the World Federation of Music Therapy (WFMT), managing editor of the Music and Medicine journal, and serves on the editorial review boards for 5 International journals. She is a past president of the Canadian Association for Music Therapists. “Notes By Amy” was founded in 1995 and provides a variety of professional services including: private music therapy, psychotherapy, and guided imagery and music sessions; performances; clinical music therapy supervision and mentoring; voice lessons; music therapy courses; and opportunities for research collaboration.