The idea that music heals can sound like a nicety reserved for flowery Hallmark cards and sugary sweet holidays. Mozart, The Beatles, Dylan, Beethoven, Miles Davis, Florence Welch, Tupac, Maria Callas, Ray Charles, Bassnectar, Stevie Wonder, and Alanis Morrisette might have a different idea about the healing power of music— so do music therapists.
Formal music therapy began with a few generous souls looking to help veterans. After World Wars I and II musicians began going into veteran hospitals to play for soldiers suffering from the mental and physical ravages of war. The patients' marked improvement physically and mentally lead hospitals to start requesting musicians to come in regularly. However, it was soon understood that musicians needed formal training for interacting with the vets. In 1944 the first music therapy degree program was started at Michigan State University (my alma mater!)
Music therapy has come a long way. A certified music therapist now assesses emotional well-being, physical health, social functioning, communication abilities, and cognitive skills through musical responses. The therapist will design music sessions for individuals and groups based on client needs. The therapist uses music improvisation, receptive music listening, song writing, lyric discussion, music and imagery, music performance, and learning through music. While traditional therapy uses talk to achieve therapeutic goals, a music therapist utilizes music to achieve therapeutic goals—not musical goals.
Consider all the ways the brain has to work to translate music: it must register melody, rhythm, words, harmony, tempo, timbre, dynamics, and form. Further, the brain is involved in memory, emotion, participation type (active or passive), and familiarity. The brain is processing all of these things at once.
As a result, music can be used to aid a patient’s recovery in multiple ways. A stroke victim might be taught to use rhythmic auditory stimulation to help them walk. The patient follows a beat, which their brain will then entrain and teach their feet to follow—that is, walk properly. Music is also used to facilitate communication with autistic children. The lyrics of songs can be utilized to help psychiatric patients understand coping skills. Music therapy is used for stress reduction via music making such as in drumming, singing, etc. Stress is also relieved with passive listening.
Music can ease loneliness— letting us know that others suffer the same pain we do. It can serve as a form of motivation, an expression of repressed anger, a way to form social bonds, and help us experience love. Music can be used to alleviate depression, soothe anxiety, and, for some, access the spiritual dimension of life.
The soulfulness of rhythm and blues started in church with gospel music. Gospel was a way for the African American community to come together, heal from the oppression of racism, and express their love of God.
In the inner city rap music serves as a platform to speak out against the oppressive forces of poverty. While much of the music has been criticized as violent, misogynistic, and homophobic, rap has also served to join communities, uplift people, and give individuals a passionate career.
By now the 60’s music of Woodstock has long been understood as a way the Vietnam War was protested and people came together to heal.
Kirtan music is played to express spiritual ideals. It is often performed in a call and response form with the audience to elicit states of deep meditation, joining, and ecstasy.
Drumming circles are used to ground people and release anxiety. They were commonly utilized by tribes to counter the tension of the full moon. A full moon not only pulls on the tides of the oceans, it pulls on the water in our bodies—triggering glands and emotions, bringing out the “werewolf” in people. Police forces have long put more cops on the beat during the full moon.
I’ve heard many people repeat the phrase, “Music saved my life.” How do you access music to balance emotions and heal your life?
Below a high priestess musician, Florence Welch, of Florence & The Machine, tends to a patient in the first video and leads a crowd in a rain dance in the second. She tells them both that its ok to let go of pain, rejoice, and proclaim, The Dog Days Are Over. I dare you not to be healed, just a little: