The Affects of Music on the Nervous System

Mathew, an 11 year old multi-handicapped child suffered from mental retardation, physical retardation, epilepsy, and seizure disorder. While going through one of his daily seizure episodes, his therapists brought him into what is called a “sensory room.” In the sensory room, much like the ones pictured below, there was a dark atmosphere with different ambient lights and things to touch. Most importantly, there was tranquil music playing throughout the room.


After entering the room, Mathew immediately started to calm down and his seizing stopped. It was amazing how instantly he relaxed and it raised a question in my mind. How did entering the sensory room have that strong of an effect on Mathew? The answer: Music therapy.

“A Career in Music Therapy”, cited in Music Therapy for Handicapped Children, defines music therapy as:

the use of music in the accomplishments of therapeutic aims: the restoration,maintenance and improvement of mental and physical health. It is  the systematic application of music, as directed by the music therapists in a therapeutic environment, to bring about desirable changes in behavior. Such changes enable the individual undergoing therapy to experience a greater understanding of himself and the world about him, thereby achieving a more appropriate adjustment to society.

Music therapists make their patients create, sing, listen, or move to music to help them develop mental and physical skills.

This is the case for Mathew. The therapists made him listen to music to calm him mentally. Music effects emotional responses and is a very successful technique to relieve anxiety and stress.

In “An Overview of Evidence-Based Support for the Therapeutic Use of Music in Occupational Therapy,” Daniel G. Craig states, “Music’s ability to decrease arousal, physiological measures of stress, and perceived effects of anxiety in clinical and well populations has significant support. The unique ability of music to facilitate emotional release, acting as a catharsis, may have a role in the relaxation response.”

Mathew felt relaxed after listening to music because of the affect it had on his brain. Patients, like Mathew, with seizure disorders and epilepsy, have frequent bursts of slower brain waves, know as alpha or theta, rather then fast brain waves called beta. When music is played, the brainwaves equalize, calming the body. says that a 60 beat per minute pulse can help internal rhythms, meaning ambient songs with moderate tempos are best for equalizing brain waves.

An experiment by Cleveland Clinic proved that music modified the activity of neurons in the brain, easing anxiety and relaxing patients that were about to undergo surgical procedures. You can read more about the experiment in Time Magazine.,8599,1929994,00.html

Even though music has been used to as a cure to seizures and other disorders, it also has cases where it is harmful. Musicogenic seizures are a form of epilepsy that are triggered by certain types of music and pitches. Just as music was used to calm the brain’s EEGs, it can arouse them, causing seizures. These types of seizures have a lot to do with the emotional reaction to song, not just the tune and pitch. Charles Schroeder, a neurologist, says “responding to a song emotionally could cause groups of brain cells to be become extremely excited-and cause a seizure.” Music creates rhythmic activity in the brain and if that rhythm is similar to a negative pattern in your brain, a seizure could occur. This was the case for Stacey Gayle.

See her story here:


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