Healing Through Harmony: Music Therapy

Although its genesis can be traced back to World War I, the formal profession of music therapy has only recently started to gain serious steam again as a legitimate method of treatment. The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) defines music therapy as ‘an established health profession in which music is used within a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals’. There can be many approaches and facets to music therapy – it can be performed individually or with a group, with original music (composing new music with the patient) or with popular songs, it can be sung along to, danced to, or performed with the patient, or it could be as simple and passive as giving the patient music they enjoy and observing the effects.

Probably the most notable example of successful music therapy in recent history is the case of former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. In January 2011, Giffords was shot in the head during an assassination attempt, and as a result suffered from aphasia – the inability to speak based on damaged language pathways in the brain. Through layering words on top of music, over the process of ten months, she learned to speak again.

Language exists in the left hemisphere of the brain, where Giffords was injured. Music exists in both hemispheres, and scientists have figured out a way to use singing the lyrics of popular songs to essentially circumvent the damage inflicted in the language centers. By adding words to the music, one can relearn to speak through other areas of the brain that aren’t damaged.

This is just one example of how music can be used in a therapeutic way to solve real medical issues. Music therapy is often used to calm and soothe patients during rehabilitation, lessen the effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s, reduce chronic pain, improve communication in children with autism, and improve motor function in Parkinson’s patients.

With dementia/Alzheimer’s patients, one of the biggest facets of music therapy as treatment is the method of using songs familiar to the patient to bring back crucial memories that the disease may have taken from them. Some patients begin to remember certain feelings, people, places, and events associated with the songs they’re listening to – perhaps ‘What A Wonderful World’ was played at a patient’s wedding, and therefore it reminds them of their late husband, for example. In the process of remembering key moments in their life, the patient’s mood is lifted as well. Music therapy can work on both planes at once.

In treating patients with Parkinson’s disease, rhythm takes center stage. The music therapist begins this approach by exploring various musical styles with the patient and figuring out which styles he/she enjoys most, so that the rhythm of songs will stimulate natural movement (i.e. tapping one’s foot or bobbing their head back and forth). If the patient doesn’t enjoy the song in the first place, they won’t want to move. If they enjoy the song, the tapping of the foot can be manipulated into moving the entire foot, then the entire leg, then both legs. By learning to walk in rhythm to the song, the patient is essentially gaining more control in the movement of walking more generally.

While many of the applications of music therapy haven’t been officially medically evaluated, several published scientific journals exist to back up the credibility of music therapy to treat dementia, Parkinson’s, irregular sleep patterns, and, as is the case with Congresswoman Giffords, aphasia. The college scholarship directory website Cappex currently lists 61 schools with a Music Therapy degree program, and that number should be expected to steadily rise as the career field continues to grow in recognition. Moreover, many fully-accredited institutions offer two-year equivalency certification programs to those who have attained a degree in a related field, such as another music or psychology degree. According to the AMTA website, in 2014 the average salary among all certified MTs was $50,808. That seems like a solid salary for essentially being around music all day as a job, but one must be a little more than a music lover to qualify. Music therapists must be trained and accomplished musicians, and many different instruments may be used in a single session. Regardless of the requirements, music therapy may very well be the most unique and morally rewarding career path to follow if you’re a non-rockstar who is serious about music.

More information on music therapy can be found at http://www.musictherapy.org.

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