Role of music and imagery in healing

Role of music and imagery in healing

by Sanjay B

A modality that affects physiological changes and, at the same time, expands the boundaries of consciousness to allow for new frames of mind sounds a little like magic. In actuality, it is achieved through the combination of two healing agents from the ancient world-music and imagery.

Music and imagery, separately, have been demonstrated as effective agents in managing pain. Achterberg explains the role of sound in filtering out pain. Auditory tracts passing directly into the reticular activating system of the brain stem coordinate sensory input and alert the cortex to incoming information. Sound traveling through this system activates the brain and competes for cognitive awareness. Other sensory stimuli, such as pain and nausea, can be gated out. Achterberg speaks of images as electrochemical events that carry messages from the brain to the body. Thus, combining music and music-induced imagery in the healing process provides a powerful synthesis that engages the whole of a person. Besides the management of physical symptoms, music and music-induced imagery are used effectively in such treatment needs as psychological factors surrounding chronic or terminal illness; a broad range of mental, emotional, and relationship problems: assisting individuals through the stages of dying (Skaggs, 1997); and meeting spiritual and existential crises.

The Role or Music

Response to music alone is involuntary. Heart rate, respiratory rate, and other body rhythms begin to match the rhythm and tempo of music, in an act of entrainment where human pulse matches music pulse. Studies have indicated that music lowers heart rate and blood pressure and creates a less stressful, healthier environment.

More than a tool for affecting physiological changes, however, music represents human emotional processes. As a metaphor for human relationships, music is in constant motion, tones relating to tones, questioning and answering in conversational style, generating tension and resolution. It provides diversity, which keeps interaction vital and engaging, yet offers the quintessential example of how unity survives and thrives amidst diversity. As a complex system of communications, music is both a reflection of and a model for universal life patterns.

Archetypal patterns inherent in great music and the symbolic language elicited through listening provide a bridge between conscious and nonconscious levels of awareness and link personal history to the collective history of mankind.

Music-Induced Imagery

Music touches at the cellular level and stimulates responses that go far beyond mental imagery. As imagery in sound, music is the stimulus that may awaken all of the senses of perception-visual imagery, sensations of taste, smell, hearing, and feeling, emotions, and intuition. These responses arise from the depths of the psyche and are unique to the listener’s experience. Images arising spontaneously in this manner belong authentically to the imager. Images initiated by the reading of someone else’s script tend to be strongly influenced by the belief system inherent in the script. A part of any healing process is the activation and strengthening of inner resources. By connecting individuals with their own image-producing capacity, we assist them in accessing their true and most creative nature. With a strong sense of their own essence, individuals have a resource that is always available, one that allows a sense of control over their lives. Images emerging from such a primary level tend to “hook” the imager. The ambiguity of the images prevents their becoming understood with any finality or totality. This elusive nature holds the imager’s attention in an ongoing involvement. Images spawn more images, serving to maintain a sense of freshness and excitement. The imager is not likely to become bored with his or her healing process or to feel burdened with the obligation of repeating the same visualization day after day in a ritualized manner.

The ambiguous, abstract, unfolding nature of music without words provides an open environment for the individual psyche to resonate and respond with its unique language of symbols and images. Healing music may simultaneously stir emotions while containing and supporting them, allowing for the expression of the previously inexpressible. The therapist well trained in the language of symbol and metaphor can assist in the emergence of content from the depths of a person in a manner which offers safety, respect for the experience, and encouragement for growth towards wholeness.

Responsibility in Practice

Since the choice of music influences the sense of safety and the nature of responses, the responsible therapist is trained in the use of music in therapeutic practice. There is music-and there is music. When music is used as medicine, it deserves the same respect that, for example, pharmacology or cardiology commands. The therapist with competent knowledge and experience in the physiological, psychological, and spiritual potentials contained in. or absent from, music can choose music that is isomorphic in function; that is qualities in the music will match the healing need, whether the need is physiological, emotional, or spiritual in character. When combined with attention to internal responses, this practice is what native Americans might refer to as good medicine.


Music can be used as a modality to promote change and enhance living for a number of health purposes. Music therapy is a profession that uses music as treatment for rehabilitation, for maintenance of quality of life, and for habitation for persons with physical, intellectual, and emotional disabilities. Music therapists are certified by the Certification Board for Music Therapists.

Music, if analyzed through music theory, is composed of tonal sound intervals and harmonies that are timed in their delivery to designate meaning through rhythm, volume, and the use of lyrics. Theories in music therapy relate to a number of variables, including physiological response to music, emotional response to music (including the impact of memory and earlier life experience), the effect of music on coordination and balance, and cultural influences of music.

With children, music therapy is often used in the schools as a vehicle to improve physical coordination, concentration skills, fine motor skills. Music also assists with the acquisition and application of study habits and academic fundamental skills, improving socialization skills, building self-esteem, developing basic life skills, and expanding the quality of life through the enjoyment of music and through creative self-expression.

With adolescents and adults, music can be used therapeutically with those who have behavioral, emotional, or mental problems to assist them to develop new adaptive skills, explore feelings, and resume functioning within society. As a complementary modality, music is often used to decrease stress and anxiety and prevent the development of depression.

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