The February 11th broadcast of the NBC Nightly News presented a story of a museum in Chicago that took some of Van Gogh’s masterpieces and projected them onto the walls and ceilings of an art-space room. The point was to immerse the patrons of the exhibit in light and color in a way to lift their spirits and inspire a sense of wonder and peace. The exhibit appears to be, in these times of stress and emotional distance, quite effective and popular.

In much the same way, the use of music as therapy for these troubled times has received some attention—and deservedly so. Music has been a part of my daily life ever since I began piano studies as a child. My home growing up was always full of music, whether it was from my mom’s accomplished classical piano playing, my father’s stereo or my sister’s rock-and-roll 45’s. Music continues to inspire me to this day. After all, I majored in it in college, earning a BA in music with a concentration in piano before going on to medical school. After I retired from clinical medicine in 2019, I increased my practice time at the piano to almost three hours a day, a fact not lost on my family’s ears. After a more than thirty-year hiatus from serious piano study, I resumed with a teacher, Jeffrey Chappell, who is one of the foremost classical and jazz pianists, composers, and pedagogues in the world today. My life has been made better for it.

But don’t take my word that music has profound benefits against stress, depression, anxiety, and insomnia. In a Psychology Today article, author Michael J. Breus, PhD, discussed the many ways in which music can help alleviate these maladies. He wrote of the calming effects of slower, more gentle music and the uplifting effects of faster-paced, louder, and more vibrant music. He states:

“Different melodies, tempos, and rhythms can trigger vastly different reactions, as can music with lyrics or music without words. …there are our unique, individual emotional responses to music and the memories we associate with music that’s familiar to us.”

He goes on to say that the benefits of music, depending on the type chosen, can have effects, through their elicitation of neurochemical changes in the body, in these ways:

For relaxing music…

  • slower breathing
  • lower heart rate
  • lower blood pressure
  • quieting the nervous system
  • easing muscle tension
  • reducing stress and anxiety
  • triggering of sleep-inducing hormones (serotonin and oxytocin)
  • reducing stress-inducing hormones (cortisol)

For upbeat, stimulating music

  • higher heart rate
  • promoting stamina and endurance
  • increasing creativity, attention, and mental focus, as well as physical coordination

He states that music has been studied in chronic pain, PTSD, insomnia, depression, anxiety, and many other psychologically-related disorders, sometimes with great benefit. In the case of sleep (his specialty), for example, he suggests a “wind-down” period before bed, when the use of slower, more calming, and preferably lyric-free music is most appropriate. He says to be consistent; a few nights might not be enough to try the relaxing music routine so give it more time. And avoid earbuds—you don’t want to fall asleep with them in your ears. Although classical music is the type most studied, whatever suits you, from jazz to rock to folk, is fine as long as it has the desired effect.

The great thing about music therapy is how cheap it is. The radio is a great source of nonstop and wide-ranging choices. There are so many music apps out there that one might have trouble deciding where to go. And YouTube is full of soothing or upbeat choices to suit your mood.

Also, if you’ve ever played an instrument and left your studies behind, now is the perfect time to rekindle your interest. COVID has forced me to do my weekly lessons online; it’s not perfect but it is better than no piano study. And, if you’ve never studied an instrument, now is a great time to consider taking one up. You might be surprised by the positive benefits you will accrue.

For more with Dr. Sherer, click here for his podcast and video interviews, and here to buy David’s book, Hospital Survival Guide: The Patient Handbook to Getting Better and Getting Out