During some of the most difficult moments of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, people have turned to music for various reasons. In South Florida, a certified music therapist spent several weeks visiting hospices and retirement homes in order to provide guitar recitals to residents apprehensive about their high risk of contagion and illness. In Michigan, a stressed-out musical arts major sought the services of a certified therapist; the effective treatment he received to relieve anxiety prompted him to seek a new career in music therapy once he finishes his current master’s degree program.
The two aforementioned situations fit the accurate description of music therapy, an evidence-based discipline, but there are various dimensions of this practice. Healthcare professionals often incorporate music into their treatment plans; an example would be a physical therapist who plays music during sessions with patients, but this is more of a music medicine situation than actual music therapy.
Music has an inherent healing power that has been in use for centuries. Many Native Americans incorporate drumming and chanting by shamanic practitioners during their healing rituals; this is an ancient form of music therapy, but it does not conform to the modern definition. When you feel sick or bothered and play songs to feel better and lift your spirits, you are in fact conducting a therapeutic activity, but this is not the same as going through a session with a music therapist.
Defining Music Therapy
At its most fundamental form, music therapy acknowledges the effects that sounds can have on the human brain. As we all know, our brains become engaged almost automatically when music plays; even if we don’t hear our favorite songs, we will pay attention to what is being played and will formulate thoughts around the audio. Brain function can be stimulated and adjusted through musical influences, and in some cases our human capabilities can be enhanced. This is what music therapists seek to accomplish with their patients.
Let’s keep in mind that our physiology can be controlled to a certain extent by brain function, and this is a highly complex process that involves management of emotions as well as reasoning. Even though music therapy originally emerged as a social science, the discipline has progressed to incorporate the scientific method with regard to observation, identification, and measurement of factors from which findings and predictions can be made. In other words, there is a deeper neurological dimension to modern music therapy.
The healing properties of music do not provide direct relief; therefore, the role of music therapists is more along the lines of providing interventions. An example of direct relief would be a podiatrist surgically removing a terribly ingrown toenail that causes excruciating pain, thus interfering with mobility. An example of music therapy would be teaching a group of elderly patients to play instruments for the purpose of relieving the various stresses and ailments brought on by the aging process.
Factors that Contribute to Well-Being Through Music Therapy
According to modern analysis of music therapy, five factors can be modulated in treatment plans:
* Communication: Music therapy can benefit couples who are having a hard time expressing their feelings during rocky periods in their relationships.
* Cognition: This is one of the benefits of the Prodigies Music programs, particularly when children get into them from an early age. The stimulation of cognitive abilities through musical education is undeniable because the various processes involved in learning music theory: memory, encoding, interpretation, and information management.
* Behavior: Music therapy sessions may incorporate instrumental performance, singing, and dancing to improve everything from coordination to speaking and from walking to sharpening reflexes.
* Attention: It is easier to understand the modulation of this factor when we think about it in terms of distraction. Listening to music for the purpose of taking our minds away from worries is the most elemental aspect of music therapy, and it can be equally neurological as well as psychological.
* Emotion: Some musical pieces can make us cry tears of joy. Neurologists who research brain activity associate this with certain regions affected by sounds and melodies; not to mention the cultural connotations attached to certain compositions.
It is important to note that trained therapists do not assume that music will accomplish all of the above without an intervention and treatment plan. As previously mentioned, music therapists will observe, measure, and predict outcomes related to the modulation of the factors above; these determinations will form the basis of their treatment plans.
How Music Triggers Brain Processes
Not all human activities can activate all regions of the brain at once; music happens to be one of them, and if we think about a musician who composes, plays an instrument, sings, and even dances during a performance, we are talking about a considerable mental workout. Let’s take a closer look at the brain processes activated by music and where they take place in the brain:
* Frontal lobe: Here is where we concentrate and think about music in an abstract manner.
* Temporal lobe: This is where hearing takes place. If you hear a new song from an artist you recognize, this region of the brain will activate.
* Parietal lobe: When you start drumming your fingers to the beat, this area of the brain is engaged.
* Occipital lobe: Even though this part of the brain rationalizes visualization, it lights up when music plays even for people who are visually impaired.
* Cerebellum: This is where dancing and coordinating body motion to beats and rhythms are formulated.
* Brainstem: The consciousness and alertness levels required to enjoy music are engaged in this part of the brain, which also regulates vital physiological processes such as blood pressure, breathing, and pulse.
A substantial portion of modern research related to music therapy focuses on how the nervous system reacts to sound and melodies, which is why it is crucial to understand how the brain reacts.
How Patients Benefit from Music Therapy
Until the late 20th century, music therapy was mostly focused on psychological aspects, particularly with regard to behavior and emotions. Now that we understand more about the neurological interaction of music and our well-being, music therapy has turned into a multi-disciplinary practice.
There are two fundamental approaches to music therapy: receptive and active. Whenever you play music to become motivated into doing something such as cleaning the house, you are practicing a basic version of the receptive method. Active music therapy largely involves playing instruments, but it may also incorporate singing and dancing. There is another level of active music therapy that utilizes analysis, and it is sometimes applied in conjunction with psychotherapy.
Music therapy sessions that involve drumming tap into the primal human proclivity towards rhythms. Let’s say a prison inmate who suffers from lymphoma is not reacting positively to medical treatments; he is feeling blue and succumbing to the combined stress of cancer and incarceration. A music therapist may seek to lift the spirits of this patient by means of having him play an African djembe drum; the idea is to take his mind off his ailment and imprisonment.
In the case of patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, they may become angry and frustrated at not being able to understand what is happening to them. Since Alzheimer’s is a chronic and debilitating disease, it is important to keep patients active and engaged, and this can certainly be accomplished through active music therapy. The key here is to alleviate the worst symptoms and to keep cognitive functions active because they could easily succumb to the wasting of this terrible disease.
When working with emotionally challenged children or those who are in the autism spectrum, music therapists are more inclined to apply the active method with the added twist of education. Some music therapists become music teachers for their youngest patients because they may as well introduce children to music theory, notation, appreciation, and performance; the intent here is to advance cognitive development, and this may also involve playing rhythm-based video games such as Guitar Hero.