Music is indeed a language of its own, and one that transcends the boundaries and limitations of ordinary speech in its potential to help people process emotions. This concept is the driving force behind music therapy, an approach that uses music to help people cope with a variety of healthcare issues. The benefits under the umbrella of music therapy are more diverse than you might suspect: from Alzheimer’s to autism and depression to the terminally ill.
While it sounds like a thoroughly modern practice, the history of music and medicine goes all the way back to ancient Greece. Plato referred to music as “an auxiliary to the inner revolution of the soul, when [the soul] has lost its harmony, to assist in restoring it to order and concord with itself.”
Science, on the other hand, has provided more concrete answers on the neuroscientific benefits of music. According to the Peterson Family Foundation, music helps to release dopamine and endorphins – ‘happy hormones’ – into our bloodstream, which improve our mood and can reduce pain. Music also reduces the presence of cortisol, the stress hormone, allowing us to enter a relaxed state where our blood pressure and heart rate decrease.
Music therapy can assist people across the spectrum of life with a variety of healthcare and wellness issues. This extends all the way up to patients in palliative care, where music therapists use evidence-based techniques to help palliate the symptoms associated with a terminal diagnosis, as well as address their social, emotional, and spiritual needs.
Helping the dying with therapeutic music interventions
“Death is often difficult to discuss. Dying persons often don’t want to burden others, and may suffer in silence or deny that they are dying to spare their families pain,” says University of Toronto researcher Amy Clements-Cortes. “Music, when provided in a music therapy session with identified goals and objectives may help clients express emotions and concerns, and by using their own words or those of others (via pre-composed song lyrics), they can share what they are feeling and remain connected to their identities.”
Clements-Cortes is a multi-talented individual with hands in several areas related to the field. She is involved in education, interdisciplinary studies, and runs her own certified music therapy and registered psychotherapy practice.
“As an educator, I think it’s really important to stay connected to the work,” says Clements-Cortes.
Her recently published paper involved some 80 music therapists who offered their perspectives on using singing and vocal interventions in their music. Quite consistently, clients prefer their favourite music to be sung, but they are also open to novel pieces that simply relax them.
Clements-Cortes’s earlier work describes the benefits of singing and vocal interventions with the terminally ill as two-fold. On the physical side, there are improvements in relaxation, breathing control, and articulation, while on the psychological, it promotes self-identity and can create a better sense of connection with those around us.
The atmosphere and connection that music therapy can develop in a care environment benefits not just the patient, but also the people around them. Family members can get involved by singing with the dying persons, being involved in therapy sessions where dying persons share their writing and performances of original songs as a tribute to loved ones.
“When families sit around a bed for 12 hours, they tend run out of things to do or talk about. Sometimes I engage the family to sing with me – that way they feel they’re contributing,” says Clements-Cortes. “It not only impacts the patient and family, it also adds to the environment as it has a positive effect on nursing staff.”
Tunes trump talk when it comes to memory
“Music remains in our long-term memory, so when someone has dementia and can’t remember much, they still remember music stored there. By triggering these memories, they can engage and participate,” says Clements-Cortes. “If you have a special song that’s connected to an occasion – say, your wedding – the emotion hits you much more vividly when reliving it with music. Music truly helps us to feel things on a deeper level.”
Dementia and Alzheimer’s patients make up a significant amount of music therapists’ clientele for this reason. Where words fail to engage a person, the music can cut right through a failing memory and evoke something deep inside. All the more important in an increasingly elderly world: by 2050, cases of dementia are expected to triple, so the value of this work is only set to increase.
Catch the rhythm to aid your speech
Music and language have many crossovers, so challenges in speech can be assisted by using music as a tool to develop new pathways in the brain to redevelop required skills. There are a variety of Neurologic Music Therapy techniques that can assist persons in developing speech and/or creating new pathways in the brain, such as Melodic Intonation Therapy.
For example, one particularly interesting avenue for music therapy is with specially-trained neurological music therapists who treat children suffering from communication difficulties. In this scenario, they adapt the core elements of music (tempo, rhythm, pitch, and texture) to help them speak more fluidly and naturally, making expression and comprehension easier.
Through therapy, these specialists can equip children with a fresh sense of confidence in their ability to communicate and engage with those around them, making it easier to not only express themselves, but form friendships as well.
Good vibrations… can treat brain dysfunctions?
Professor Lee Bartel, a colleague of Clements-Cortes, is the founding director of the Music and Health Research Laboratory, which facilitates multidisciplinary collaborations between music and health researchers.
The theory underpinning his current research relates to diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, which stem from dysregulation in the brain’s natural rhythm and whether certain frequencies can be used to stimulate them back into the right gear.
“We are finding ways to stimulate the brain using music – not just as music, but as vibratory sound. We’re finding that the vibratory aspect of music at specific frequencies can drive brainwave activity,” says Bartel. “The question is, can we use this rhythmic driving effect to help those conditions?”
For now, Bartel’s theory remains in the doldrums of research. But perhaps one day we will, as he says, sit in a special vibratory chair when we reach our 60s that uses frequencies to tap into our brain and heal it. Sounds like sci-fi, but it wouldn’t be the first time that science has proven truth can be stranger than fiction.