Feb. 29, 2012

Staying in Tune - The Therapeutic Benefits of Music

By Mary Dixon Lebeau

When she’s feeling a bit down, Cynthia Sambrano often finds herself humming along to a favorite song to lift her mood:

“I believe in fairy tales      
And dreamers’ dreams like bed sheet sails
And I believe in Peter Pan and miracles
And anything I can to get by
And fireflies.”

Of course, many people are fans of Faith Hill’s Fireflies album. But for Sambrano, the song—and, in fact, many types of music—can do more than just put a temporary smile on her face. Music can be truly therapeutic for many problems the body encounters, including symptoms of stress, pain, and fatigue that many who live with lupus experience on a regular basis.

Sambrano, a board-certified music therapist and owner of Heart and Soul Music Therapy in Payson, AZ, says music therapy provides stress relief and can help people cope with chronic disease. “I use music to stay off of medication,” says Sambrano, 48, a trained concert pianist who was diagnosed with lupus and Sjogren’s syndrome at 18. “I have a very strong belief that that is why I am so healthy.”

Although Sambrano started playing piano at age 3 and studied at the Peabody Conservatory at 13, she had to give up performing because of the joint problems she was experiencing. She moved into musical theater as a director before receiving her degree and board certification in music therapy. Now she shares her own experiences with clients.

Music therapy is the development of a set of music strategies to reach desired outcomes, explains Suzanne Hanser, Ed.D., chair of the Music Therapy Department at Berklee College of Music in Boston and past president of the National Association for Music Therapy.

“It’s really a structured and formulaic approach to meeting individual needs,” Hanser says. “There are certainly elements of certain music that have been shown to impact our moods in specific ways. Repetitive, smooth melodies, such as lullabies, are more likely to induce relaxation. But some will find it boring and will get agitated by such music. In therapy, we look at individual preference, a person’s history, personal association and response to different types of music, then use the most suitable music to develop a personal treatment plan.”

Music can be selected to match the person and the mood. So classical fans can plug into Mozart or Beethoven for therapy, while others can get the same effect by listening to show tunes, the Beatles, or Lady Gaga.

“Music therapy is very client-centered,” Sambrano agrees. “We look at the whole person, which is nice for those of us with lupus, since each of us has a different story and different symptoms.”

But you don’t have to be a trained musician to benefit. While strumming a guitar or banging the drums may be therapeutic for some, others may find respite in writing songs, dancing, or simply listening to certain types of music. “When you’re engaged in music, it changes the way your brain is operating,” Sambrano says. “Your heartbeat changes; your breathing changes. You can even use music to regulate your emotions.”

Those interested in music therapy should meet with a credentialed music therapist. The therapist will assess a person’s physical and mental health, as well as his or her response to various types of music. With this information and input concerning the person’s preferences, the therapist can develop tailored music sessions.

To find a credentialed music therapist, visit the Web site for the American Music Therapy Association at musictherapy.org. “It’s really important to find someone with board certification,” Sambrano says. “A lot of people claim to do music therapy, but aren’t certified. Don’t spend money on those who claim to help you lose weight, quit smoking, boost energy, or whatever without any evidence.”

If funding is an issue, Sambrano suggests downloading music in order to burn a CD or develop a playlist on the iPod or MP3 player after your initial assessment. “It’s so easy with the Internet,” she points out. “I have a CD to lift my mood when I feel depressed, one for relaxation, another for times when I need to get pumped. Be in tune with your emotions as you’re listening to the music.”

“Be sure your favorite music is part of your day,” Hanser notes. “Rather than just having a radio going in the background, bring music to the foreground of your life.”

“When you’re tired, when you’re stressed, when you feel bad, music can really help change your mood,” she adds. So switch on soothing sounds or pump up the volume and move to the beat. Either way, it’s the healthy thing to do.


If you’ve ever swooned to a romantic ballad or felt energized by a disco beat, you know music can affect your mood. That idea is now supported by medical research. “With the arrival of PET (positron emission tomography) scans and FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) that can actually watch the brain in motion, there is an exciting push for research in the brain sciences,” says Sambrano, who is also trained in neurologic music therapy.

If you are interested in a deeper exploration of the music therapy profession, Sambrano recommends these studies:

  • “Elements of Pain and Music: The Aio Connection,” by J. Harish and C.T. Eagle (1988)—This article explains the parallels between music and pain and how music can be used to alter and eliminate the perception of pain.
  • “Rx: Elvis,” by R. Laird and S. Beattie (1989)—This article details several case studies that showed how patients could better cope with their illness after listening to their favorite music.
  • "Quantification of the Effects of Listening to Music as a Noninvasive Method of Pain Control,” by B. Whipple and N. Glynn (1992)—This study provides hard data to support using music to relieve pain.

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