Music as Medicine: the Magic Elixir

Music as Medicine: the Magic Elixir

"Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything" ...Plato

“Without music, life would be a mistake” - Friedrich Nietzsche

I agree with Plato and although I never agreed with Nietzsche’s politics, I agree with his statement about music.

Every morning in my life begins with a ritual. I turn on Dixieland Jazz and symbolically march up Rampart Street in the usual pattern of the traditional New Orleans Jazz funeral. The funeral starts with a sober note, but then quickly shifts upbeat into a spirit of hope, optimism and joy. And I march off to the kitchen to make my wife a cup of coffee and start my day on a positive note.

Music is a huge part of my life and always has been. My mother was an amateur jazz piano player who studied at Julliard and I play the Eb alto saxophone, though I started on the cello. Music has always served as a wonderful way of lifting my mood, inspiring and empowering myself, or alternatively putting me in touch with my deepest emotions. Sometimes these emotions are painful or embarrassing, but as an ancient sage wisely commented “water which is pure has no fish in it.”

I believe that music has served these same functions throughout the centuries for millions of people all over the world.

That being the case, I have wondered why music is so rarely spoken about either in the scientific literature or even in clinical practice as a factor in lifting one’s mood and/or connecting with ones deepest emotions as one attempts to cope with and recover from depression.

It is well known that music, if chosen correctly, can dramatically increase the pleasure states in our brains. Music can raise our serotonin and boost our norepinephrine, and dopamine. Also, studies have proven that music can dynamically affect physiological indicators of emotional arousal such as heart rate, respiration, electro dermal activity, and body temperature. I and many others believe that we can use individual pieces of great or personally relevant music to change our brain chemistries and physiological states often in a matter of minutes, sometimes in a matter of seconds. Like many, I believe music is a great medicine for the mind, the body and the soul.

Music can also be used to our advantage whenever we choose by creating a diversion, distracting us from unpleasant or obsessive thoughts which can easily fill our minds and increase our anxiety.

Indeed, distraction is one of the most effective strategies for regulating mood. How else can Tony Robbins get ordinary people to walk on hot coals! Perhaps it should be added that attention, planning and memory have consistently showed activation when people listen to music. So, it might be reasonable to hypothesize that some of the symptoms of depression such as decreased movement, poor attention, poor planning and execution, loss of energy and poor memory might benefit from a “therapeutic regimen” of music. Indeed, I suggest that for optimal results music should be utilized like medication -- prescribed in a specified manner.

Like playing an instrument, listening to music should be practiced in a way that is consistent, repetitive, organized and perhaps also done as part of a community which is what happens at concerts or in churches.

Although music is rarely utilized as part of the clinical treatment for the “pain” of depression (either with inpatients or outpatients), music has been shown to have a salutary effect on chronic pain.

Music is often used with cancer patients in conjunction with chemotherapy. (Proceedings National Academy of Science). Indeed, the Mayo Clinic has employed harpists to help patients heal following cancer treatments. In a related area of trauma and pain it has been reported that former Rep.

Gabrielle Giffords, who was badly injured in a Tucson, Ariz., shooting several years ago, apparently recovered her speech with the help of music. One might reasonably ask, if she could recover her speech by this means then why can’t someone else recover their spirit?

Richard Kogan, MD. who is Professor at the Weill Cornell Medical College, Director of their program on music and medicine and himself a concert pianist has said: “I think it’s really important for healthcare professionals to not lose sight of the fact that music has unparalleled capacity to ease pain, to soothe anxiety, and to lift spirits. When all the scientific findings come in, I think there’s potential for the explosion in the use of music in medical centers.” He goes on to say “as medicine becomes more technologically driven, the humanistic elements such as music in healing are more important than they ever were. Though they are [now] largely separate domains.”

When our Greenwich DBSA support group began over 10 years ago much of the discussion was about the disabling symptoms of the disease or problems associated with medications that were being prescribed.

Over the years the conversation has shifted dramatically from the disease and the pharmacology to the human experience of recovery. People share stories and experiences, techniques, strategies, attitudes, articles, spiritual perspectives, and wisdom learned (often the hard way). They also learn the unique value of perspective and humor. Recovery requires great determination, courage, spirit, and the willingness to reach out both to express vulnerability and to support the vulnerability of others.

Most recently our Greenwich DBSA group has begun to discuss the role of music in recovery and healing. This brings us back to the theme of this essay “music as medicine”.

To be specific, we have helped members of our group to develop personal playlists that they can utilize whenever they want to lift their moods, inspire themselves, calm down, achieve a sense of balance, or feel more connected to people they love or have loved in the past. They have also identified music that helps them to feel connected to a higher power, achieve peace and serenity, and feel more empowered. Through this process they have also become more aware and better able to deal with their underlying feelings previously numbed by their depression.

People have put together highly personalized lists of songs from rock, blues, show tunes to opera, symphonies, choral music, gospels, meditative music used for yoga, etc... that have served a wide variety of psychic functions and with modern technology can be easily called up as needed with the touch of a finger. Members have discovered that incorporating this practice into their daily lives literally has become a mood altering opportunity and experience.

Simply stated by one group member: “Music has no downside if you create your own playlists in advance and remember to press the button - it is an easy effortless risk-free almost instant mood altering ‘medication’ that can be life-enriching and life-expanding. I can repeat that every day as often as I wish”. Another group member added: “Music has become an essential part of my life, no matter what place I am in. I reach out for it and use it as needed, even when I work, and it has saved me from many cocktails.”

The challenge for many people who are depressed is consistency. They may tend to follow this practice for a day or two and then stop because they feel tired or “unmotivated”. The key is to “Just do it”. People, particularly when depressed, have the misguided idea that action should follow feeling and they should wait until they feel better or until they “feel like doing it”. The experience in our DBSA support group is precisely the opposite - feelings will often follow action. Members who have made the effort to develop their playlist and utilize the music to lifts their spirits on a regular basis discover that it works. Indeed when they get into the habit of doing this on a daily basis members realize that it is something that they look forward to and enjoy doing regularly.

Give it a try and let me know how it works. My email is:

This is the first of a series of articles to be written by Dr. John Tamerin specifically for the DBSA Leadership Circle Newsletter entitled Perspectives. (Dr. Tamerin is a member of our Board of Directors and Medical Consultant to the Greenwich Ct. DBSA chapter.

Dr. Tamerin, a psychiatrist with over 40 years of clinical experience, has served for many years as Clinical Associate Professor at Weill/Cornell School of Medicine teaching residents and medical students. He has consistency been voted one of the Top Doctors In America by Castle Connelly.

Dr. Tamerin has published extensively in the areas of mood disorder and the addictions. He has served on the GAP committee on Alcoholism and the Addictions, the Committee on Human Sexuality and Most recently has joined the committee on Psychiatry and the Arts…. His goal in this series of articles will be to further integrate medicine with the Humanities and the arts presenting new and provocative perspectives of direct relevance to the treatment of people suffering with mood disorders.

Dr. Tamerin’s hope is that by further integrating more of the arts into the recovery process he will inspire more creative individuals to join us and help DBSA both in healing and in reducing stigma.