Doctor beat

IT can reduce stress, increase intelligence and even help stop wars. So could music be the magic cure to all physical and mental ills?

FORGET Botox, forget the diet, forget the gym… There is a new kid on the rejuvenation block, which claims that you can roll back the years simply by using your ears. So can you seem younger with a quick blast of Vivaldi?

A US study suggests that listening to sophisticated classical tunes can make you more youthful. "Listening to finer music and attending concerts on a consistent basis makes your real age about four years younger," says Dr Michael F Roizen, of the Wellness Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, in Ohio. "Whether that's due to stress-relief or other properties, we see decreases in all-cause mortality, reflecting slower ageing of arteries as well as cancer-related and environmental factors. Attending sports events like soccer or football offers none of these benefits."

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If this is the case, what else can music do? Should it be available on prescription through the NHS?

Many health practitioners will testify to the therapeutic power of music. It is proven to have a physiological effect on the body – for example lowering blood pressure. Music therapy works because the basic substances of music – tone and rhythm – are deeply embedded in human physiology and functioning.

The heartbeat and breathing are examples of the rhythmic processes within us, while in speaking we use tone that we vary for expressive purposes. Human beings are put together in the way that music is put together, which is why it energises and appeals to us; we identify with it and it reaches our emotions. For people who have problems communicating, music therapy can enhance expressive and interactive ability; for those isolated by illness or disability, it can provide a means of socialisation and it also helps self-exploration.

We all instinctively know that specific types of music can induce or promote particular states of mind. It makes sense that Israeli researchers found that those listening to fast music were twice as likely to have an accident, while soothing music at metro stations and schools helped calm teenagers in Newcastle. Back in 1989, US troops used the sheer annoyance factor of Joe Dolce's 'Shaddap You Face' and Rick Astley's 'Never Gonna Give You Up', played at full volume for three days, to induce Panamanian president Manuel Noriega to resign. Even the Vatican, no fan of Noriega, was forced to protest about this excessive cruelty.

Since then, the use of 'acoustic bombardment' has become standard practice in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay to create fear, disorient detainees, prolong capture-shock, induce sleep-deprivation – and drown out screams. A Barry Manilow medley was used in Sydney to drive loitering youths from local parks.

Surprisingly, not all musicians object to this practice. When they were told their track 'Enter Sandman' was among the most widely played song for torture, rock band Metallica are reported to have said, "Our music is meant to be scary, and if we can help with the war on terrorism in any way, we are extremely proud." Manilow was unavailable for comment.

Music can alter the way we feel and move. It can affect our mood and how we think. It can even provide strategies for coping that have an impact on a condition itself. But can it be used to treat specific symptoms or diseases?

In Austria, medical experts are attempting to prove it can. A study in Salzburg involved patients listening to a special music programme for 30 minutes a day, five days a week for a month, and found that patients experienced clinically significant improvements in heart-rate variability, a major indicator of autonomous nervous function.

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Vera Brandes, director of research in music and medicine at Paracelsus Private Medical University, describes herself as "the first musical pharmacologist", and intends to dispense music as a prescription. The university's therapies are due to be launched in Germany and Austria this autumn and will involve patients being sent home with an iPod-type player filled with music.

Brandes and her colleagues have analysed various forms of music to select its active ingredients, then blended them into 55 medicinal tracks – all original, as the study found that reactions are different if music is familiar. Steering clear of serious illnesses or infectious diseases, the Austrians claim to have had success with treating psychosomatic disorders, pain-management, depression and insomnia.

The idea came to Brandes after a near-fatal car crash landed her in hospital with two broken vertebrae and an expected immobilisation of ten to 14 weeks. In the hospital, she was sharing a room with a Buddhist whose friends came in and chanted daily, and after two weeks a scan showed that her spine was completely healed. "Everyone said it was a miracle," Brandes says. "They sent me home, but it got me thinking."

Meanwhile, in the UK, Stefan Koelsch, a senior research fellow in neurocognition of music and language at the University of Sussex, is working on participatory musical treatments for depression. He backs the findings of the Austrian research. "Physiologically, it's perfectly plausible that music would affect not only psychiatric conditions but also endocrine, autonomic and autoimmune disorders," he says. "I can't say music is a pill to abolish disease, but my vision is that we can come up with things to help. So many pills have horrible side-effects, both physiological and psychological, but music has none."

YOUNG Ethan Brooks is a testament to the positive powers of music. These days the eight-year-old from Loanhead loves to answer the phone. You would never know Ethan had no speech at all at the age of three. "At three and a half, he only had ten words," says his mother, Wendy Brooks, who admits that back then the youngster – who was later diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome – could be hard to cope with.

Help was to come in the form of a series of tapes of classical music, given to Ethan at primary school. Known as the Listening Program, it consisted of music with different frequencies running throughout that resonate with the brain and was used by Mayfield Primary's speech and language provision in Midlothian, where the education department is keen to roll it out further. "Ethan did 15 minutes twice a day, five days a week, over an 18-week period in primary one and two. When he went back into mainstream education, he settled a lot easier than he might have done," says Brooks. "The music was very specific, not just any classical music, but pieces with particular frequencies and pitches. I tried listening to it too, but I used to fall asleep. It was very calming," she laughs.

"The music helped with his concentration and social skills, which is a huge thing when you've got Asperger's. He used to get frustrated and upset really quickly but he became a lot calmer and it became easier to get through to him. He's a maths whizz, so that became more focused too, because he can concentrate better. Before the program, he just wasn't listening," she says. "It has had a very powerful effect because he hasn't been as difficult to deal with and his conversational skills are very good now. You'd never know how he was at three years old."

Another parent who will testify to the effects of music therapy is David Clement, whose ten-year-old autistic son Callum has benefited from several years of treatment through his school. "There are therapeutic, educational and social-skill elements. It helps to develop confidence in group situations and musical ability, and also if Callum wants to express anger, he can hit a drum. Since he has been doing it his social skills are better and his confidence around his peers has improved. For some kids it can be a ground-breaking experience in their lives."

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Music therapy in Scotland places the emphasis as much on participation as the delivery of rhythm and harmony. Much of the treatment is based on the pioneering work of Paul Nordoff and Clive Robbins in the 1950s and 1960s, using improvisation as a basis. No prior musical skills are required, and treatments range from music as therapy in itself to using music in therapy. In the former, instruments or vocals might help express emotion, while in the latter a familiar song might be used as a key to unlock the minds of those in a coma or struggling with Alzheimer's disease.

Mary Brown, executive director of Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy in Scotland, is keen to stress that musical therapists are all state-registered. She says, "A lot of our clients can't express themselves, either for emotional or physical reasons, or they have learning difficulties. One little girl found it very difficult to walk – we used a lot of rhythmical music, which helped her become more coordinated. Another child cried and screamed constantly, but I was able to use the piano in a way that supported her and let her be heard. She wasn't able to say, 'I'm feeling rough', just scream, but the piano let her express it."

The work of Nordoff and Robbins forms the basis of the MSc in music therapy run by Queen Margaret University. Now in its seventh year, the course focuses on creative music therapy where improvisation forms the basis of interaction between client and teacher.

James Robertson, programme leader of the degree, has been working in music therapy for 25 years and endorses the idea that music can act as a medicine. "There have been a lot of studies that seem to support the idea. The Mozart effect (where listening to his music may induce a short-term improvement on the performance of certain kinds of mental tasks] was just one example, but it doesn't need to be classical. Whatever music you relate to can be a benefit, and that's the great thing about it, that we all find something in it of value that reaches us," he says. "It's immediately therapeutic. In the UK our approach is less prescriptive than the Austrian one, but we do consider carefully the use of harmonies, scales and intervals, and the potential effect of different sounds and how they can be utilised."

Music therapy is constantly developing and broadening its ways, according to Robertson. He says, "It may be that certain chords have a stimulating or motivating effect on someone's responses; the use of different tonalities, the use of seventh chords (a tone or semi-tone short of an octave] may with some people have a specific outcome.

"We do spend a lot of time exploring different musical sounds and cultures and the effects these can have. We expose students to a wide range of sounds, say from Middle Eastern cultures, Asia and Spain, so they have these in their toolbox," he says.

The key difference between the Scottish approach and that of the Austrians is the difference between being interactive and prescriptive. While the Austrians administer doses of music, here the emphasis is on a creative experience, working with a client's responses. "We work with what they give us, rather than the other way round. We start with a vocal sound they make or the way they play an instrument and work from there. Children with autism and Asperger's do relate well to music therapy. But people are also working in the NHS across a range of needs and abilities, in forensic mental health, dementia, palliative care and behavioural difficulties," says Robertson.

"Music is energising and it also gives a voice to people who maybe in another context have found it hard to communicate or express themselves. It is a non-verbal means of communication that provides people with a voice to be noticed for who they are, rather than for what they are unable to do," he says.

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In Loanhead, Brooks would agree, since her family's life has been transformed by music. "It's a horrible thing to say about your child, but Ethan was hard to deal with. The music programme made him much easier to communicate with, and now he's someone you really want to spend time with. He's a fascinating child. He loves all kinds of music too. His favourite band at the moment is Scissor Sisters – I'm just glad he doesn't know what they're singing!"

For more information, contact the Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Centre (020 7267 4496, For details about studying the subject, contact Queen Margaret University (0131 474 0000,


NOT all music is intended to heal. These are real examples of music used to inflict pain and distress.

US military prisons and bases

AC/DC 'Shoot to Thrill', '(You Shook Me) All Night Long', 'Hells' Bells'

Deicide 'F*** Your God'

Dope 'Die MF Die', 'Take Your Best Shot'

Christina Aguilera 'Dirrty'

Eminem 'Kim'

Metallica 'Enter Sandman'

Sesame Street 'Sesame Street Theme'

Guantanamo Bay

Neil Diamond 'America'

Bee Gees 'Stayin' Alive'

Drowning Pool 'Bodies'

Eminem 'White America', 'The Real Slim Shady'

Michael Jackson 'Beat it'

Martha and the Vandellas 'Nowhere to Run'

Nazareth 'Hair of the Dog'

Abu Ghraib prison

David Gray 'Babylon'


Nancy Sinatra 'These Boots are Made for Walking'

Noriega's surrender

Rick Astley 'Never Gonna Give You Up' (also used in Scientology protests)

The Bobby Fuller Four 'I Fought The Law (But the Law Won)'

Joe Dolce 'Shaddap You Face'

Jimi Hendrix 'Voodoo Chile'

Rockdale, Sydney (used to drive youths from parks)

Barry Manilow 'Copacabana', 'Mandy', 'Could It Be Magic'

Doris Day 'Que Sera Sera'