Music Therapy: Sing Your Way Through Parkinson’s

Music has always been uplifting, and it turns out it can also be good for your health. People with Parkinson’s disease (PD) can benefit from singing. It is good exercise, encourages socialization, can reduce depression, and generally make you feel better.

Music therapy to help manage Parkinson's symptoms

When a doctor suggests singing, it can be a recommendation for music therapy. A clinical and evidence-based science, according to the American Music Therapy Association “the use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.” can improve quality of life for those with medical or psychological conditions. The Association promotes the benefits of music therapy and seeks to increase access to quality music therapy services used in healthcare and educational settings.1

Parkinson’s disease is a chronic, degenerative, neurological disorder; it is frequently characterized by a loss of motor function, yet it has serious non-motor symptoms as well. Cognitive and psychological decline may in fact appear before the motor symptoms. Speech and communication deficits often progress with the disease.

Music therapy has been demonstrated to be effective for people with PD. A review of music therapy programs in the scientific literature shows that playing and/or listening to music may have an effect on emotions, behaviors, movement, communication, and cognitive factors.2 The impact can modify brain activity. Studies have shown that the effects of music can result in changes to both psychological and movement-related symptoms in those being treated for PD.

Studies in the area of neuroscience have shown that music can stimulate the production of dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters that are in reduced in people with PD.3,4

Music therapy has scientific implications when evaluating various rehabilitative treatments. It has been used in multiple settings including health care, special education, and rehab centers. The focus is often on the empathetic and emotional relationship between the music therapist and person with PD to foster improvements. Music exercises are proven to contribute to improvement in motor, cognitive, and sensory functions. These changes are significant for those who have been impaired by neurological damage.

Benefits of singing for people with Parkinson's

There are physical benefits of singing to the general population as well as to those suffering from PD. It is considered exercise. It can improve your posture and breathing when using correct technique. Singing can strengthen your immune system and is a natural anti-depressant. It works by releasing chemicals, including endorphins, which can make you happy and reduce stress. Because singing is social, it can also help you improve your confidence and make friends.

Loss of vocal strength is a common side effect of Parkinson’s. Some people experience difficulty with articulation, as their speech becomes slurred. Muscle and motor issues, like difficulty controlling tongue movement, could cause this. Others experience a decrease in vocal volume that could be influenced by poor breath support.5 Singing can help by reinforcing vocal enunciation and sustaining breath support. People can build strength through song.3,6

According to Elizabeth Stegemöller, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University, singing uses the same muscle groups used for swallowing and breathing.

PD can negatively affect these functions. She leads classes of people with PD through vocal exercises and songs to improve muscle activity and function. Stegemöller reports that the objectives of these classes are to strengthen the muscles that control the functions of breathing and swallowing; not to make participants better singers. Not only are people having fun and not thinking about their medical concerns but they are also improving breath support and posture, increasing muscle activity and control - all of which can help improve communications.6

One class participant said, "I don't have much volume in my voice, which is very normal with Parkinson's to have the voice go. I just keep thinking I would probably have even less volume by now if I hadn't taken this singing class." The impact of changes due to singing has been reported not just by class participants but also by caregivers, families, and friends. Psychological improvements related to stress, mood, and depression have also demonstrated improvement.

Future reasrach on the role of music therapy for Parkinson's

Future studies of the role of music therapy and singing on PD should provide additional clarity. The GRAMMY Foundation has awarded a grant to Professor Stegemöller to study the overall effects of singing and to verify if there is measurable improvement in PD symptoms.7

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