Music is a powerful medium through we can communicate, appreciate, feel, take respite, and just be. The breadth and depth of music, any kind in fact, is so tangible that philosophers, musicians, lyricists, and authors throughout the years have had much to say on the matter. Plato once remarked that, “music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” Contemporaries like Billy Joel have stated that, “…music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.”
What is it then about music that is so soothing, so comforting and in fact, so therapeutic?
Music Therapy is Not Just Pretty Music
While we have all felt moved by particular pieces of music, music therapy is more than merely appreciating good tunes and great lyrics. Music therapy is an evidence based treatment modality that was founded upon scientific research and structured practice. Music therapists must be board certified in order to practice in professional settings. The requirements to become a board certified music therapist, MT-BC, include completion of the American Music Therapy Association’s clinical program, proof of one’s skills as a musician and clinician, continuing education credits, and more. In short, while music therapists are quite capable of making pretty music, the reasons they do so go far beyond the boundaries of entertainment.
Clinical Effects of Music Therapy
Our brains process music differently than other forms of sensory data. Whereas most information is interpreted in one part of the brain, music activates many parts of the brain simultaneously, allowing for richer, brighter, and deeper experiences. As a result, music can trigger emotional and cognitive responses at the same time, allowing us to comprehend, decipher, and make use of our experiences with greater clarity and understanding.
Music affects the autonomic nervous system which in turn allows our breathing to relax, our heart rates to go down, and calm to prevail. It is because of this treatment’s far reaching effects that other clinicians request music therapy for their patients. As part of a collaborative, interdisciplinary practice, music therapy is able to successfully manage a variety of symptoms in the hopes of alleviating them altogether.
In many cases, the presence of culturally or personally significant music has been shown to be most effective in the reduction of anxiety, rapid breathing and hyperventilation, restlessness, and pain. In some cases, music therapy has proven itself more effective for symptom control than talk therapy. And when used in combination with prescribed pain medication and other clinical interventions, music therapy can markedly abate pain and other manifestations of illness.
Music Therapy in The Field
Music therapy can be conducted anywhere really, but is most often conducted in medical and health settings such as hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, and private offices. Some music therapists prefer to work with several patients at a time, while one- on- one work is more suitable for others. What guides the ways in which music therapy is conducted is determined by the reasons it was requested, the goals the music therapist will be expected to work towards, the types of issues that may be discussed while creating a clinical repertoire, the patient’s cognitive abilities, the instruments available, and the types of music being engaged.
Some clients choose religious hymns in order to connect spiritually with their higher powers. This allows patients an opportunity to connect significant yet intangible parts of themselves that bring them the most peace and comfort. Other clients prefer music with heavy beats and predictable rhythms because that is the kind of music that brings them back to a healthier or more wholesome time in their lives. It is the music therapist that guides these clinical settings, all in the hopes of encouraging tranquility and calm.
A music therapist may choose to play an instrument or utilize recorded music in a hospital session. Some therapists will help patients through lyric analysis, in the safety of their homes. All music therapists worth their clinical salt will ensure that the music they provide, no matter the form it takes, allows the patient to explore their feelings and welfare in ways that feel secure and do not induce fears of danger or threat.
Music therapists are clinically and musically trained professionals who believe in their commitment and convictions to helping people in the ways that suit their clients best. As a result, this intervention needs to be better known and more accessible within the public sphere. And as a treatment that is clinically sound, healthier, and more effective than drugs or alcohol (while eliciting some of the same types of relief), it is clear that music therapy’s time has come.
Dr. Shahen Kurestian, DC of Body Systems and Wellness in Glendale, California is available to discuss music and other types of therapeutic interventions that may be right for you.