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Davis, California

Monday, April 15, 2024

The medicine of the mind

Music therapy shown to have benefits for medical patients

With the developing progression of music therapy, hospitals and other facilities have begun to adopt various methods of incorporating the therapy into their services. The personalized elements of music therapy allow it to be used as a treatment for a wide variety of patients.

Tori Steeley, a music therapist at UC Davis’ Children’s Hospital, was initially on track to obtain a doctorate and teach at a university or even play in an orchestra after studying music performance as a student. However, she felt a desire to help people and use the skills she learned in music performance to enhance those abilities.

“I wanted to find a job that used my music performance skills but also my skills of empathy and wanting to help people and do something better for my community,” Steeley said.

While the former music therapist at UC Davis’ Children’s Hospital was only part-time, Steeley now works at the hospital full-time. Her patients can range from premature infants to 18-year-old teenagers with each receiving individualized treatment. According to Steeley, music therapy is centered around creating specific goals for each patient and having the session personalized to meet those goals. Thus, the benefits vary depending on the purpose of the session.

For babies, singing lullabies not only helps their sleep, but also helps develop their language skills and gives them positive stimulation that they may not usually receive at a hospital. Patients with autism or communication impairments may be able to strengthen their communication skills. Children undergoing chemotherapy who are constantly at the hospital can play instruments as a form of distraction or a healthy, productive way to release their emotions. Steeley also helps children write songs to express their feelings.

“Often times children don’t have the words to express how they’re feeling because they just haven’t developed that vocabulary yet,” Steeley said. “But through music, they can express themselves without words.”

Henry Spiller, a professor of music at UC Davis, also believes that music has the ability to help people understand their emotions better. Through his studies in ethnomusicology, Spiller has seen instances where rhythmic activities can help people transcend into a sacred mental space or different psychological states that can heighten their awareness and have healing benefits. He stated that people can utilize musical activities to access parts of themselves that are usually inaccessible.

“The reason [music] works is because it’s not describable in words,” Spiller said. “Music communicates at a very different level than words do, and that can be very valuable. It can say two things at the same time that are contradictory, which is difficult to do with language.”

Spiller stated that the research he has done in music therapy suggests that music therapy depends a lot on the acculturation of the individual patient, such as what music they have been exposed to in the past or what behaviors they associate with music. However, he also stated that other research suggests that music has the ability to access parts of patients unrelated to culture.

“Based on my own personal experience, of course, I think music can be transformative. It can provide the kind of social lubrication required to get people who are making music together or who are sharing music as performers and listeners, provide a context, in which they can open up to each other,” Spiller said. “They can lay bare elements of their personalities that otherwise need be kept at bay.”

Over the years, more and more studies on music therapy have been conducted. Debra Bakerjian, a clinical professor at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC Davis, worked together with Elena Siegal, an associate professor at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing, to design the study implementing the Music and Memory program. The program was a collaborative effort between UC Davis and the California Association of Healthcare Facilities to use personalized music as an way to help patients with dementia.

“Our study found very positive results in improving the behaviors of persons with dementia, reducing the use of several psychoactive medications and improving the quality of life for residents in nursing homes,” Bakerjian said. “We also saw reductions in resident falls and complaints of pain. So, the music was very effective for many residents with different types of problems and conditions.”

Steeley also stated that music therapy can help in cases of memory care and those with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in order to orient them to their reality. Bakerjian stated that research shows that music therapy is being increasingly recognized as a non-drug intervention for varying patients and conditions. Like Steeley, she hopes that music therapy can be further implemented to various adult settings.

“I would like to see the Music and Memory program that we studied expanded into other settings to include the acute care hospital, assisted living settings as well as in people’s homes where there is a significant amount of caregiving happening,” Bakerjian said.

Written by: Michelle Wong — science@theaggie.org


  1. Music really can be “medicine” for the mind. It is magical how it sparks memories in people with dementia. A good resource for using music on a daily basis is called a LifeSongs recordable book. You can record 12 songs (or your voice) to go along with your photos. You can order them on Amazon of LifeSongs.info.


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