David Binanay started playing the violin when he was five. By age twelve, he performed at the world famous Carnegie Hall in New York City and, soon after, at the White House.
In 2006, fresh off graduation from Villanova University, Binanay was positioned perfectly to build his life around music. He had just moved into his own place and started a job at a high-end violin shop.
That’s when he noticed the bleeding.
Music and The Mind
It was a gastrointestinal bleed. Binanay had experienced one before and he called his mom to let her know what was happening. She wanted to help, but David stopped her.
“Don’t worry about it. I’m going to handle it myself,” he said.
This was the first time Binanay tried to handle a serious health issue on his own. When he arrived at the hospital, things began to spiral out of control. His hands started shaking and his mind began to separate from reality. “It was my first psychotic episode,” David recalls.
The situation went downhill fast. After resolving the bleeding issue and leaving the hospital, Binanay’s psychosis continued. He started having delusions and became fearful of everything. “I couldn’t even walk into a grocery store because of the fear,” he says. “I didn’t really know what I was afraid of, but I feared for my life. In the span of one week I went from being normal to having a complete psychotic breakdown.”
This was the peak of David’s psychosis, but his battle was just beginning. He would struggle with schizophrenia for the next five years. His medications worked, but David had trouble sticking to them. There was one thing, however, that always seemed to help.
“My dad would look at me and say, ‘Dave, go get your violin.'”
The Healing Power of Music
Music stopped the pain. “Every time I played, I noticed a change,” David said. “I would channel my emotions through my music. The fear would turn to music. It would turn to sound.”
A new medication schedule helped too. David found it much easier to stick to his medication when he switched from pills to injections, which he only needed once per month.
Today, after a five year battle, Binanay has made a full recovery. He plays his violin up to 10 hours per day and runs a non-profit, Music Over Mind, that performs free music shows at hospitals for people suffering from mental illness. “Music has been my catalyst for recovery,” Binanay says. “It has been a 180 degree turnaround. From complete loss to total re-birth. I recently got married. I have my own place with my wife. I feel like I’m a better person than before my illness.”
David Binanay’s story raises an interesting series of questions. Can music help heal us? What role does music play in our health and happiness? Can music be a form of medicine?
Let me share what I’ve learned about the health benefits of music.
The Stroke Victim Who Was Healed by Music
In her book The Power of Music, author Elena Mannes shares the story of a stroke patient who has lost the ability to speak. After struggling to re-learn normal speech patterns, the patient makes a breakthrough by singing her words rather than saying them. This approach is known as melodic intonation therapy and it engages the right side of the brain more than normal speech. As a result, this different section of the brain can stand in as a replacement for the normal language area and be used to communicate through song. 
At first glance, this story may seem like a very specific way to combine music and health, but it actually provides a good indication of the state of music therapy. There are many stories about music being used to help Parkinson’s patients move, autistic children focus and learn, or multiple sclerosis patients reduce spasms. These stories, however, have no research studies supporting them. My guess is that these are individualized results which, although true, are difficult to extrapolate to the entire population.
That said, there are a handful of health benefits of music that are well-accepted and scientifically proven.
The Research: Music as Medicine
First, music can be used to relieve pain in patients. For example, surgery patients at the Cleveland Clinic that listened to recorded music saw a 4x decrease in post-surgical pain. Music has also been shown to reduce the amount of anesthesia needed during operations. [2, 3]
Second, music can be used to relieve stress and anxiety. Calming music decreases blood pressure, steadies the heart rate, and eases stress. Research has shown that music can reduce stress for patients undergoing surgeries and colonoscopies, for children undergoing medical procedures, and for patients with coronary heart disease. [4-7]
There is also preliminary evidence showing that listening to music can boost immune system function by decreasing stress hormones and increasing growth hormones. These changes should prime the body to be in a better state for recovering from and resisting illnesses, but the research is weak thus far and needs further investigation. 
Finally, there are a range of studies that link music to happiness and pleasure in different ways. Despite the differences in the individual studies, the scientific consensus on the topic is that music does stimulate the same areas of the brain that trigger pleasure in other activities. A range of studies have found that listening to pleasurable music stimulates the mesocorticolimbic system in the brain, which is the same “pleasure center” that is triggered by humor, tasty food, and even cocaine. In this way, you could say that music is like a drug. If music makes you happy, then it might be possible that it is good for your health. [9-12]
These benefits sound great, but is music unique in providing these benefits? Not really.
Given the current state of the research, it is not known if music is any better at healing than other alternatives. Music is not the only way to relieve pain or reduce stress. Music might work well for Person A while meditation is better for Person B and deep breathing or exercise help Person C. If nothing else, however, music is another tool at your disposal when you want to relieve pain, reduce stress, and promote healing.
The Limitations of Music Therapy
You can summarize the current state of research on the connection between music and health by saying that we know music impacts our brains and bodies, but we don’t quite understand exactly why or how music does this. And because we don’t understand the details, it can be hard to use music for healing.
To be honest, part of these issues could be solved if researchers performed better studies. Right now, researchers aren’t doing themselves any favors because musical research rarely follows a typical format.
Here are a few common errors (and solutions). 
- Current research doesn’t clearly differentiate if it is the act of playing music or the act of listening to music that benefits patients. For example, if a patient gets better after playing songs on a keyboard, chanting in different tones, or singing their favorite song, are they benefiting from the musical notes or from the act of playing music? Future studies should investigate if active performance or passive listening yields better results.
- Current research poorly categorizes the impact of different music styles. Most researchers lump music therapy into broad “stimulating” or “relaxing” categories. Future research should include more clearly defined boundaries, so we can understand which types of music can be used to heal in specific situations.
- Current research flip-flops on who controls the music. Sometimes the experimenter chooses the music. Sometimes the patient chooses their own music. This can complicate things because sometimes you are more likely to see music as having a positive impact simply if you selected the music. Future research should be more clear about this selection process.
- Current research varies between individual listening, individual playing, and group playing. In many cases, patients may benefit from simply doing an activity with a group and not the music itself. Future research should investigate these environmental factors to help clarify the impact of individual vs. group music therapy.
- Current research, at least what I found, was universally missing a large, randomized trial. This type of study is the gold-standard of research and if music therapy interventions are to be taken seriously, then a high quality randomized study is needed.
The Health Benefits of Music
Whether it is a pick-me-up song that brightens your mood or a live-saving violin practice like that of David Binanay, we have all felt the healing power of music.
From a research standpoint, the health benefits of music are unproven. However, I have always said that I try to balance being a scientist with being a practitioner and, from a practical standpoint, there are very few reasons to avoid music as a way to improve your health and happiness. Music therapy is noninvasive, inexpensive, and convenient. And music is one of the lifestyle choices we can make that relieves stress and anxiety, decreases pain, and protects against disease.
Stefan Koelsch, a senior research fellow in neurocognition at the University of Sussex in Brighton, summarizes the healing effects of music by saying, “I can’t say music is a pill to abolish diseases. But … So many pills have horrible side effects, both physiological and psychological. Music has no side effects, or no harmful ones.” [14, 15]
- The Beginner’s Guide to Healthy Habits
- The Best Self-Help Books
- The Theory of Cumulative Stress: How to Recover When Stress Builds Up
- The Power of Music by Elena Mannes. pg. 179
- The Power of Music by Elena Mannes. pg. 168
- The Power of Music by Elena Mannes. pg. 172
- Cepeda, M.S. et al. (2006) Music for pain relief.
- Nilsson, U. (2008) The anxiety and pain-reducing effects of music interventions: a systematic review.
- Dileo, C. and Bradt, J. (2007) Music therapy: applications to stress management. In Principles and Practice of Stress Management (Lehrer, P.M. et al., eds), pp. 519–544, Guilford Press
- Bradt, J. and Dileo, C. (2009) Music for stress and anxiety reduction in coronary heart disease patients.
- Gangrade, A. (2012) The effect of music on the production of neurotransmitters, hormones, cytokines, and peptides: a review.
- Breiter, H.C. et al. (1997) Acute effects of cocaine on human brain activity and emotion.
- Small, D.M. et al. (2001) Changes in brain activity related to eating chocolate: From pleasure to aversion.
- Mobbs, D. et al. (2003) Humor modulates the mesolimbic reward centers.
- Blood, A.J.and Zatorre, R.J.(2001) Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion.
- Many of these research limitations are covered in the guide, The Neurochemistry of Music by Chanda and Levitin.
- The Power of Music. pg. 193-194
- There is one side effect of music: opportunity cost. Listening to music that makes you happy is a great way to spend your time, but only if you’re not ignoring other things that make you happy or could improve your health and lifestyle. For example, if you listened to music that made you happy all day, but never worked out, then how big of a health benefit are you really getting? The same could be said for happiness. If you simply consumed music that you enjoyed all day long would you end up living a better life than if you had spent that time building a business you loved or mastering a skill that advanced your career? As with all uses of our time, there are tradeoffs to listening to music and it’s important to balance it with other areas of life that provide a payoff.
Thanks to David Binanay for taking time to chat with me and to Sam Sager for his help researching this article.