Using music therapy to heal Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Published on August 21, 2012

I think I am on firm ground when I say that music permeates our daily lives. On any subway you can find more than a few people sitting with their earphones, heads bobbing to music. Equally anxious to escape into another world, earphoned joggers can often be seen on big-city sidewalks dodging headphoned and meandering pedestrians. Music comes in all forms; we have elevator music to save us from the burden of small talk during that arduously long one-minute journey; music to protect our study from interruptions in the library, and Starbucks music for leisurely reading in that coffee shop.

I believe; however, that there is something bothersome about how we use a beautiful thing like music to keep us apart from the rest of humanity. That is why when I came across a recent research paper from the Institute for Music in Human and Social Development (IMHSD), Reid School of Music, University of Edinburgh, I had to read it. The paper, by Nigel Osborne is titled Neuroscience and “real world” practice: music as a therapeutic resource for children in zones of conflict.

Although the author is hesitant to refer to his efforts as “applied music neuroscience,” he is at least operating in the increasingly popular field called the cognitive neuroscience of music. The field uses various modalities, most popularly functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) electroencephalography (EEG), and positron emission tomography (PET) to examine the cognitive process related to the listening, composition and performing of music. These imaging-based observations of the brain is what distinguishes cognitive neuroscience of music from the fields of cognitive musicology and music psychology.

As a discipline, the cognitive neuroscience of music might be applied in interesting ways to our everyday lives. One study, for instance, found that when a group of right-handed subjects and a group of left-handed subjects are both asked to memorize the pitch of a certain musical selection, the lefthanders perform betteri. While we all have duplication of memory storage between our brain hemispheres, it is thought that right-handers have a certain amount, but left-handers typically have more. Most interesting is the fact that ambidextrous subjects performed better on the test than even the left-handers.

There is no shortage of scientific studies that find a correlation between music and intellectual ability. The Neuropsychology of Lefthandedness , for instance was as study that demonstrated that the amount of brain gray matter increased as a person moved from non-musician to amateur musician to professionalii.

Given this abundance of research, I was delighted to see that Osborne performed due diligence on searching out relevant scientific studies which supported his position. This is important because Osborne’s case is bolstered by supporting his conclusion with evidence-based research, particularly since scientists who study in the field of cognitive neuroscience of music may be psychologists, music theorists, neuroscientists or come from one of many other specialties.

Osborne skillfully combines anecdote and research to build his case. For example, after offering evidence that stress, specifically Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), has a pathological effect on a person’s breathing, he supports the claim of music’s regulating effect on the respiratory system with other four other studies. Likewise, he backs up his claim regarding the bi-directional relationship between PTSD and abnormal endocrine production, and then affirms with four additional papers supporting the beneficial effect of music on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the system responsible for hormone regulation.

All of this evidence is but a means the Osborne’s end of helping people such as the group of teenagers in Thailand whose lives he describes in the paper. The young people are a remnant of a population from the British Colonial period, “displaced Burmese Thai in the region, granted ‘leniency’ to live in Thailand, but with no citizenship, rights, health care, employment protection, or permission to travel out of the region.” The teens, gathered together and chatting about their professional prospects in their country, recognize that their future will likely be much different than their “legal” teenage counterparts living there.

“The words of the songs”, says Osborne, “are touching, more a gentle cri de coeur than agitation propaganda.”

Many times we have been hurt
Felt confused and don’t know where to turn
Like the long kong fruit we come and we go
And give the long kong branch to show
That we would like to be its friend
But now we just don’t see an end
So if some day you think about us
We are here, still waiting for you.

Osborne asserts that this synchronicity of emotional and social expression was therapeutic to the boys’ self esteem. I experienced Osborne’s claim while living in Germany as a soldier serving in the Berlin Brigade, I distinctly remember the prideful rush that I felt each time we exercised by running in step through that historic city. As an expression of unit-level espririt de corps, we usually sang songs that were, shall we say, discourteous to other non-medical American units. I would often call cadences and noticed that 100-plus group of soldiers would get appreciably louder during the verses that expressed the overcoming of a challenge or defeat of an enemy. The shift in morale was significant. I even noticed a slightly depressed temperament on mornings that the run was cancelled because of inclement weather or duty obligations. This phenomenon was quite interesting to me because it was a real world example of the neuroscience of intersubjectivity--identifying biological correlates that demonstrate how we feel about our shared experience with another. Fascinating.

Write us a few lines if you have any experience or questions regarding the cognitive neuroscience of music. I would like to read your thoughts. Until then, KEEP THINKING!


i Deutsch, D. (1978). "Pitch memory: An advantage for the lefthanded.” Science 199 (4328): 559–560. 

ii Deutsch, D. (1980). "Handedness and Memory for Tonal Pitch. In J. Herron (Ed.)". Neuropsychology of Lefthandedness: 263–271

Category(s):Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) / Trauma / Complex PTSD, Relaxation techniques

Written by:

Tony Brown

Tony Brown is a former U.S. Army (Reserve) Medical Officer, and currently completing his studies as an M.D./PhD/MBA candidate, with a research thesis titled, “Pharmacology and the Neurological Correlates of Consciousness.”