The sound of health
In a 2011 interview with ABC News, just months after a traumatic brain injury, U.S. Rep Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was shown joyfully singing “This Little Light of
Mine.” Though her speech was halting, she gave credit for her remarkable progress to music therapy.
“Music is a very powerful force,” said retired Santa Fe music therapist Margaret Sears, “and we have the scientific experimentation to prove this, particularly in terms of physiological facts. It is impacting us at the brain level, at the nerve level and everything else, because we can’t block it out.”
Los Alamos music teacher Greg Schneider directs Music Together of Los Alamos, a program that introduces young children to music. “There are so many learning centers that are actively stimulated when you actually make music as opposed to just passively listening to it,” he said. “In singing, dancing and playing an instrument up to a dozen brain centers are stimulated. That is very conducive to learning in general.
“Children who are exposed to music — especially from birth to 5 years old, when they’re most receptive to learning languages — will go into their later years and even into adulthood with better language skills.”
Schneider’s wife, Pauline Schneider, works with Los Alamos Visiting Nurses to provide music-based therapy to hospice patients, many of whom suffer from dementia, a condition that affects multiple areas of the brain.
“They’re at a point where they don’t speak anymore, they can’t walk safely anymore, and many of their functions are gone,” she said, “but the music is still there, and they can still sing songs that they remember, even when they can’t talk. Once music gets in your brain, very few things will take it away.”
According to the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) website, a number of research studies show that music therapy delivered by credentialed music therapists can “help people with mental illness develop relationships and address issues they may not be able to do using words alone.” The studies also report reduced muscle tension and anxiety, improved self-esteem and verbalization, better interpersonal relationships and increased motivation.
The contemporary discipline of music therapy, says the AMTA website, began informally after World War I and gained momentum again after World War II, when amateur and professional musicians started visiting veterans hospitals across the country to play for convalescing soldiers. Many patients showed dramatic physical and emotional improvement and the first professional music therapy curriculum in the world was founded at Michigan State University in 1944.
Today professionally accredited music therapists work with people of all ages, from premature infants to elders suffering from dementia, and their efforts improve sleep, reduce the frequency and severity of asthma episodes, lessen pain, improve communication and even help motor function for those with Parkinson’s disease.
Even without the aid of a professional music therapist, everyone can experience the benefits of music. Recent research cited by the National Institutes of Health reports that drumming can lower stress hormone levels, enhance some immune responses and be a useful complement to standard addiction therapies.
Dr. Alan Watkins, a senior lecturer in neuroscience at Imperial College London, says that Gregorian chants “can have a significant and positive physiological impact” in lowering blood pressure and increasing levels of the performance hormone DHEA, “as well as reducing anxiety and depression.”
According to the AMTA, a growing number of universities are offering advanced degrees in music therapy and the future of the profession, particularly in physical rehabilitation and Alzheimer’s disease, is promising. Though many people are skeptical about the benefits of music therapy and only a few insurance companies cover it, success stories like that of Congresswoman Giffords may be changing the prevailing tune.
Nothing activates the brain so extensively as music
— DR. OLIVER SACKS, PROFESSOR OF NEUROLOGY AT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY AND AUTHOR OF MUSICOPHILIA