The Power of Music Part 2: What happens behind closed doors? The music is revealed.

In my first article, I wrote about what music therapy is. For the readers who missed it, you can read it here: Eve’s Story.


What is music therapy again?

A quick definition of music therapy: the use of music in a specific, clinical way to reach therapeutic goals with a client. These goals can include reducing anxiety, expressing and exploring repressed emotions, improving depression, and a whole wide range of other issues. Music therapists can help treat people diagnosed with mental health issues, Alzheimer’s disease, autism, and more. Music therapy is an alternative form of therapy.

This form of therapy may be appealing to those who may find it difficult to express their emotions into words, or who may be drawn to the creative arts. Either way, music is a powerful way to access our emotions and brain function, and in some ways, can be a more effective therapy than traditional therapies. There has been countless research about how music affects the brain with some stunning results. Some examples of these affects include allowing patients to sing who have experienced stroke and Parkinson patients dance who struggle with gait and tremors.

The University of Calgary is conducting a program called the Music Walking Program that utilizes music as a reward to encourage Parkinson patients to walk and improve their gait.

The Calgary Project uses music and dance to help people with Parkinson’s disease. Professor Anne Flynn partnered with Decidedly Jazz Danceworks and Parkinson Alberta.


What kind of music?

The next big questions are what kind of music is used in music therapy, and how does it work, and what kind of science and methodology is behind it?

First of all, the use of music in three key areas:

  1. Passive – The use of music without a music therapist. The client listens to music passively, such as on the radio or iPod. There is no interaction with another person.
  1. Receptive – Listening to music created by a music therapist. The client does not play, but receives the music aurally. The music therapist is actively creating music and responding to the client.
  1. Active – Both the client and music therapist play music together. The interaction is active and both client and therapist are constantly responding to one another.


Passive music

In my first article, I showed a YouTube video of Henry, a senior with Alzheimer’s disease. In the video Henry’s expression appears to be dormant. After the headphones are placed over his ears, his face becomes animated when he hears music from his youth. His eyes widen and he begins to sing along confidently, full of spirit. The transformation is incredible and demonstrates the power of music.

This video does not represent music therapy. Music therapy would involve a music therapist who could respond to Henry. I wonder how much more of an experience Henry could have if a music therapist was present with him. A music therapist could sing and talk with him. Perhaps the music therapist could grow his response and extend his enthusiasm into every day life. This type of work demonstrates the power of working with a therapist. The change and growth is supported by the trusting relationship developed between client and therapist.

Excerpt from Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory.


Receptive music

Imagine you are a patient in a hospital, lying in bed, weak and you can’t lift your arms or legs very well. When I worked at the Banff Mineral Springs Hospital, I visited many patients who were quite sick. Since they were bedridden, they missed many of the social activities. For patients like these, receptive music therapy is the best approach to take.

The music therapist may decide to improvise by playing slowly in order to match the patient’s rate of breathing. The matching of the patient’s breath with the music helps the therapist to connect with the patient. It is a way to say “I am here, I am with you, and you are not alone.”

Familiar songs can also be used to comfort the patient. Music with a gentle pulse and with a waltz tempo (in 3/4 time) can be very effective because lullaby music and love songs share these two qualities. The manner of the music therapist’s presence should be calm and gentle.

Music therapists in Montreal at Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital use receptive music to help premature babies recover faster. Similar practices are seen in the United States.

Excerpt from A Better Baby Lullaby: Music Therapy for Preemies, The New York Times.


Active music

Active music making is the most common practice in music therapy. Depending on the goals of the client, active music making can be very effective. Some goals may be measurable, such as using the drum to motivate someone with a physical disability to increase the use of their weak arm. In some hospitals, physiotherapy and music therapy are complimentary therapies where music acts as a great motivator to achieve these goals.

Other goals may be less concrete, such as the goal of to increase socialization among residents in a seniors’ home or the reduction of anxiety. These goals can be addressed in a variety of ways. One method may be for both therapist and client to pick an instrument and improvise together.

Music therapist Dr. Heidi Ahonen from Wilfrid Laurier University employs a technique called music-centered psychotherapy where the music reveals hidden emotions to foster discussion and further the therapeutic process.

Here is an example. A client enters a music therapy room filled with instruments. They have a problem with loss and grief but can’t express it. Instead of using words, the therapist suggests the client choose an instrument to play. They choose the gong. Before the therapist plays on their main instrument, the piano, they inform the client that the improvisation will be recorded for a reflection and discussion afterwards. Once the music is over, the therapist plays the music back to the client and asks for their thoughts about what the music may represent. In this example, the physical recording of the music improvisation can be a starting point of discussion. The client can begin to express and explore their feelings about the current problem.


A typical session

The format of a music therapy session can be as unique as the music therapist. A typical session involves a greeting song which serves as a warm up, a large participation section where both client and therapist play together, ending with relaxing and receptive music, and finally, followed by a good-bye song.


A girl named Rada

In September 2013, my two colleagues and I traveled to Nepal to volunteer with the local non-profit organization, Volunteer Society Nepal. We wanted to travel to a country where none of us have been to before and at the same time, volunteer our skills as music therapists.

At one of the local orphanages, Centre for Children with Intellectual Disabilities, we came across a girl named Rada. We learned she may have been abused as a child. Rada has some severe mental and physical disabilities, and she is blind. Unfortunately, we only had limited information to work with since it was difficult to attain a proper diagnosis in Nepal.

Through observation we quickly learned she was often alone, sitting and mumbling to herself. We decided to work with Rada and encourage her to sing. One of our aims was to hear her voice. Our goal was to communicate to her she was in a safe environment where she could express herself.

This video clip recorded with Rada shows us greeting her in a hello song. We play softly and give her space to improvise. You will see she begins to vocalize and smile. The interpreter later informed us she may have been repeating abusive phrases she heard in the past. The case of Rada demonstrates how music can reach through despite the barriers of language and mental disability.


Music choice?

At this point in time, there is no specific music that is the magic elixir that can heal all ailments. Music is a creative art form and musical choices are as unique as people. Rap may be therapeutic for one person, but may be unbearable for another.

It is important for the music therapist to ask a potential client their likes and dislikes in music (e.g. songs, genres, and sounds) and past musical experiences (e.g. lessons and participation in musical groups). Depending on the therapeutic goals, the music therapist—with the help of the client—will choose what type of music to incorporate into the session.


Evidence for certain kinds of music

Some evidence has shown classical music can stimulate the brain and increase neurologic function. The Mozart Effect, a concept first developed in 1991, has had some controversial support for this theory. The research study suggested that listening to Mozart’s music could boost brain function while completing spatial tasks and could help the brain development of babies.

The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music is a special method used in music therapy. The client is induced to a state of relaxation while listening to the classical music. The therapist becomes the client’s “guide” and talks to the client during the musical listening. Many issues can be explored through the analysis of symbols and meanings created by the client during this type of listening.

Lastly, the discovery of new music can be good for your brain, for any client, at any age. Learning something new is always beneficial for stimulating your brain. New music such as engaging in a new sound, listening to a new genre, or learning a new instrument might just do the trick. That being said, don’t give up on classical music just quite yet, as there is hard evidence that shows taking music lessons for at least a year can boost a child’s IQ by as much as three points.


Music, a mysterious force

Music is a creative art. It is difficult to pin down exactly how music works and why it affects us in such powerful ways. Scientific research is just starting to unravel the mystery of how music interacts with the brain. Think of music as an untapped resource at our finger tips. Music can be fun, enjoyable, and serve to improve human health and wellness in significant ways. So do your brain a favour and keep dancing to the music.