Symptom Management

Treatments to Soothe Savage MS

By Ned Hammad, MT-BC and Celeste A. Keith, MT-BC

Ever put on a favorite song and feel your mood lighten a little bit? Or your level of stress decrease? Maybe that song gave you the chills or nudged you to some kind of cleansing emotional or physical release? If so, you have - perhaps without even knowing it - drawn on some of the elements from the field of music therapy. Of course, this then begs the question: "What the heck is music therapy, anyway?"

Music therapy is the clinical, evidence-based use of music to accomplish healthcare goals with a credentialed, board-certified professional who has earned a university music therapy degree. Music therapists work in medical, educational, and related life-care settings, and are members of the treatment team supporting persons through assessment and treatment planning, for a range of psychological and physiological concerns. 

Soundtrack to our lives

It's a no-brainer that most of us have a positive response to music. Music plays a subtle yet powerful role in our lives. It shapes our attitudes and emotions, directs our biology, and speaks a language we all understand. We have vivid memories inextricably intertwined with various songs from our formative years. Or, put another way, music provides a memorable, ongoing soundtrack to our lives. We are provoked to action with a great groove and emotionally escorted with a movie soundtrack. What would the classic thriller Jaws be without the threatening pulse of "dun-dun ... dun-dun ... dun-dun-dun-dun"?

Many of us actively seek music out through streaming services or by collecting vinyl. We workout with tunes that spur more reps and build endurance. We attend musical theater and concerts. Others often play an instrument, or create loops and beats on devices. Whether you're just tapping your toe to your favorite groove or mastering a difficult piece on piano, you are enhancing your collective mind, body, and spirit. 

Since the early 1900s, board-certified music therapists, along with physicians (particularly those specializing in neurology, immunology, oncology, and psychiatry), have contributed to the research in music and its distinct power to change our biochemistry and sense of being in the world. Let's take a look. 

That's entrainment

What's actually happening when you listen to music? Quite a lot, actually. MRI scans of "music-enhanced brains" show how multiple regions of the brain simultaneously light up, including the parts that decode emotional information, learn and remember, perceive sound, and manage coordination. It's like a multi-vitamin for the brain. 

Listening to preferred music stimulates the pleasure and reward centers of the brain. Within 30 seconds, you can start to manage discomfort by spurring the release of your feel-good hormones - endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin - while decreasing the stress hormone cortisol, simply by listening to music. All this happens without the listener moving a muscle. 

That's not to say the listener's body isn't getting involved. In fact, music with a strong beat actually primes the body for movement. That's because the brain's circuitry senses a repetitive, steady rhythm and can actually predict the next beat. The motor cortex can then enact muscle movements that coincide with the beat. This is called entrainment.

The tempo (or speed) in any piece of music is the principal organizer that makes music its most powerful. Pulse is what your brain and body require to move, breathe, direct your attention, and keep a focus. By slowing or speeding up the pulse of the music you pair with specific tasks, you will signal your brain's circuitry and activate your body to move in a regular, and more productive manner. All forms of mobility, whether standing, walking, propelling a wheelchair, adjusting posture, moving limbs, manipulating hands-fingers - all can be supported by your careful selection of the music's tempo.

Manipulating any music instrument helps to retain or retrain your brain's ability to manage tasks that require individual and integrated limb, hand, finger skills. No previous experience is required. Just strum a guitar, tap a drum head, shake maracas, noodle around on a piano and you will boost your abilities to complete chores, dine and primp, text, channel surf, and other "takin' care of business" tasks.

Singing is a physical act that reaps health benefits all its own. Proper singing involves deep breathing - full flexion and extension of the respiratory muscles - and controlled, steady airflow during exhalation. Thus, the appropriate singing exercise can improve respiratory endurance, breath, and volume control and overall lung health.

The act of singing utilizes a different neutral pathway than does the act of speaking. So, if you have incurred speech complications because of injury, disease, medications, or a treatment regimen, your ability to use speech can be rerouted to the brain's singing center instead. Not only does singing provide a means to regain spoken words and phrases, but it sustains and rebuilds word retrieval, clarity and inflection, and even improves facial muscle tone.

Mnemonics and mindfulness

How many of us learned our ABCs by singing the Alphabet Song? It's a great example of what is called "musical mnemonics." These are musical exercises in the form of songs, rhymes, or chants that encode themselves in your memory bank. In neurology research (and specifically those with MS), mnemonic devices that are sung - not just spoken - have resulted in greater recall because of the brain's love affair with rhythm and melody (remember that MRI?). You might want to create a musical mnemonic device to spur the orderly completion of steps within your daily regimen, remember ID information, recall a series of words or names, or support your well-being. 

Purposefully using music is a mindfulness practice. As you engage in music experiences, you naturally reap all the biochemistry and brain goodies extolled above. But music as a mindfulness practice comes with an extra perk. Simultaneously, music gives you a place to privately honor, ponder, and validate your inner world without barrier or judgment. Music says, "I hear you!"

Making that happen are the many embedded musical elements that propel all our senses and speak the listener's unique truths. The texture and array of instruments used, the rhythmic push and pull of the percussion, the twang or grit of a singer's voice, the variations in volume, the use of dissonance and harmony, the poetry and narratives in the lyrics - all of these affect your musical introspection. 

As music therapists, we are often asked, "What is the best music for..." Our response is, "It depends." There is no one size fits all. Music is nothing but the expression of the human condition in all its beauty and complications. It is likely you are already using music to buoy yourself, and we encourage you to continue to do just that.

As part of your music mindfulness practice, we suggest you build a theme-free playlist of tunes that leave you feeling uplifted, cleansed, grounded, and energized. Over time, as you review this ever-expanding playlist (and don't be afraid to try something new), you will discover a compelling audio account and chronology of your own life experience. 

In a nutshell, music is healthy. But most importantly, it's yours - there for you any time you want it. All you have to do is tune in. 

For more information or to find a qualified board-certified music therapist near you, visit or