Stranger Things may be fiction, but music really is medicine
The pivotal role of music in season four of the hit Netflix series Stranger Things is drawing attention to the use of music as medicine and music therapy. During an already iconic scene in episode four, the character of Max, struggling to process the violent death of her brother, is inspired to escape a literal and figurative monster when her friends finally reconnect with her by playing her favorite song.
Max’s friends are inspired to attempt to reach her through music after witnessing music therapy at a psychiatric hospital during an earlier episode. Although the hit show is considered science fiction, the use of music to help struggling patients is grounded in real science.
“Music is a way to reach people who may be resistant initially to traditional talk therapy. Just like in the show, it can be used to throw someone a lifeline,” says Segundo Robert-Ibarra, M.D., psychiatrist with Houston Methodist.
“Grief and depression have a way of high-jacking the mind and can create a sense of no longer being yourself. Listening to familiar music that has personal meaning can be a way for people to remember who they were before experiencing trauma,” adds Robert-Ibarra.
Houston Methodist Center for Performing Arts Medicine (CPAM) offers patients music therapy and conducts research to learn more about the effects of music on the brain. A 2019 CPAM study found that playing familiar music positively affected brain connectivity in patients recovering from stroke.
“Music is so sticky because it interacts with multiple parts of our brain,” says John Head, board-certified music therapist with Houston Methodist Behavioral Health.
Head hopes the popularity of Stranger Things helps draw attention to the music therapy and music medicine fields. Music medicine is using music to affect psychological changes in the body. Music therapy is practiced when these music interventions occur in the context of the therapeutic relationship.
“Music can help normalize an otherwise chaotic space like an unfamiliar hospital or a monster encounter. It won’t cure depression or any other condition, but it is a useful tool to help manage the symptoms,” says Head.