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The Emotional Response to Music and Sound Therapy

Sound is any vibration that passes through a solid, liquid, or gas, which humans can hear. There are many obvious benefits to these vibrations, from hearing a partner speak to enjoying music. Sound also has therapeutic advantages, as humans are extremely sensitive to it.

Pressure waves, which are a component of sound and can be found everywhere in the environment, have impacts on the body beyond the noises picked up by the ears. They can pass through the skin and be conducted by water in the body. Bones also conduct sound, and cells have tiny structures called celium on their surfaces that act in response to vibrational frequencies.

Music and Recovery

Emotions and Music

A 2015 research study in Sage Journals cited strong emotions as some of the major factors contributing to substance abuse. The study looked at emotional responses to music, and whether individuals being treated for substance use disorders responded to music differently than those who were not. It also analyzed whether listening to music increased or reduced substance cravings.

Individuals who were being treated for substance abuse were less likely to report feeling happiness, pleasure, joy, or emotional arousal when listening to music than control participants. Modest impacts on substance cravings were reported, but a song associated with drug use, known as an “urge song,” or the presence of drug paraphernalia could increase urges. A “clean song” was used so people did not have increased cravings at the end of the study. Limited changes in cravings could be accounted for by the fact that those in the study had been in treatment programs designed to manage cravings.

Some clinical implications researchers gathered from the findings include:

  • Music could evoke emotions so an individual could work on tolerating them without experiencing relapse.
  • Clients could learn how listening to music affects cravings, including songs with lyrics about substance abuse.
  • People could identify songs that reduced their urges to use and become aware of the best times to listen to them.

What Is Sound Therapy?

Sound therapy, according to the Foundation of Alternative and Integrative Medicine, refers to the use of sound in a structured clinical setting. It can be considered a subcategory of sound healing, which is more general in terms of having people sing or play instruments. Tuning forks and bowls can be used in the process, but newer technologies have arisen to influence brainwave frequencies.

Binaural beats detune two tones from one another, creating a third tone that can trigger alpha brain waves. One can play a 315 Hz sound into one ear and a 325 Hz sound into another. A 10 Hz beat frequency is produced in the brain. Alpha waves are associated with relaxation. They’re often embedded into musical scores and used in therapeutic environments. It takes about seven minutes to entrain the brain into a pattern. A person can experience the benefits from the binaural beats, which include relaxation, creativity, and mental clarity, in 15-30 minutes.

The History of Sound and Music Therapy

The benefits of music and sound on human emotions have been studied extensively over the past 40 years. Brainwave frequency induction using binaural beats was studied by Robert Monroe. The composer, broadcaster, and founder of The Monroe Institute was part of an effort to study sound patterns on the human consciousness. A distinct research and development division was established in 1956, and Monroe had no qualms about being his own test subject. He documented what he called an “out-of-body experience” in 1958 and further explored the topic in a book, Journeys Out of the Body, in 1971.

Over a 20-year time span, Monroe researched and performed audio exercises that he thought could expand human consciousness to reduce stress, focus attention, regulate sleep, and manage pain.

Efforts to develop music therapy didn’t come about until the 1940s. There were, however, references to it as early as 1789. The first medical dissertations on the therapeutic value of music, and the first time an institutional music therapy intervention was recorded, occurred in the early 1800s. Dr. Benjamin Rush strongly supported music as a medical treatment during this time. The National Society of Musical Therapeutics opened in 1923, and the National Association for Music in Hospitals opened in 1926. Both were short-lived, but they did provide some of the first journals and courses in the field.

Music therapy emerged as an organized clinical profession in the 1940s. During this time, music therapy training appeared in colleges. The first academic program was introduced at Michigan State University in 1944. In 1950, the National Association for Music Therapy was founded in New York City. It developed standards and training requirements, and it prioritized research. The American Association for Music Therapy began as the Urban Federation of Music Therapists in 1971. A merger between both in 1998 formed the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA), which serves over 5,000 music therapists in 30 countries.

Acceptance and Usefulness as a Treatment

Music therapists, according to the AMTA, serve clients in substance abuse treatment programs among many other settings. They work in outpatient clinics, rehabilitation centers, hospitals, and community mental health centers. The outcomes they work to achieve range from improvements to self-image and self-esteem to a reduction of anxiety and/or agitation, and positive benefits to communication and interpersonal relationships.

With music therapy intervention, several goals can be achieved, rather than an individual resorting to drugs or alcohol, including:

  • More positive feelings and moods
  • A sense of control over one’s life
  • Increased ability to cope and relax
  • A lower level of irritability
  • Development of verbal/nonverbal self-expression skills
  • Improvements to social interactions
  • Enhancement of decision-making skills and autonomy.
  • More capacity to concentrate and pay attention
  • Stronger will and ability to resolve conflicts among peers and family

These are just some of the results of addiction listed by the SAMHSA. No wonder music therapy is catching on in treatment programs. A National Institutes of Health study in 2014 indicated that close to 15 percent of substance abuse treatment programs in the US had integrated music therapy into their offerings. Programs treating adolescents were most likely to do so. In addition to being a motivating factor for clients, music can be the focus of games, improvisational exercises to express emotions, and lyrical analysis.

Other Uses of Music and Sound Therapy

Sound is used in conventional medical situations and alternative environments. Ultrasound has been extremely useful as a noninvasive surgical method. At high frequencies, growths can be destroyed, and pulsed infrasonic sound waves can break up gall bladder and kidney stones. Sound therapy has also been used to treat tinnitus, a condition in which a person hears constant noises, such as ringing in their ears.

In the mental health treatment realm, music has been used to treat soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Positive emotional results have been seen in hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, and nursing homes when music therapy is employed through singing, listening or moving to music, and even engaging in songwriting. Whether a person is a musician or not, melody and lyrics can still have a profound impact on their health and wellbeing. The benefits stretch far beyond personal leisure.

When used as part of a comprehensive treatment program, coupled with traditional evidence-based therapies, music therapy can benefit those in addiction recovery.