Henry is a patient at a hospice in New York. He has dementia – he hardly recognizes his daughter, speaks in monosyllabic sentences and constantly looks down. In his youth, Henry loved to sing and could not imagine his life without music. The nurse puts on headphones for him, from which Henry’s favorite gospel songs are heard. His eyes leave the floor and rush forward, and his hands begin to tap out an indistinct rhythm.
After listening, he answers the journalist’s questions about his youth, says that “music gives him a feeling of love” and sings. For a few minutes, Henry is reunited with his former inner world – this is the power of music therapy, which makes life easier for tens of thousands of patients with a variety of diseases. Henry is just one of them, and his story is an example of how music can affect a person and become an important part of the whole healing process. About what music therapy is and why we should pay attention to it – read further in this article.
Music therapy is, literally, music therapy, which includes a whole psychotherapeutic method based on different forms of interaction with music: from writing to listening to songs and melodies and more. A qualified music therapist from a variety of techniques chooses the one that suits the patient and begins treatment. A music therapy session can be either group or individual. Music therapists say that watching closed and isolated people open up and seem to “melt” under the influence of music is incredible. The session usually lasts from 30 minutes to one hour.
The history of music therapy dates back to ancient Greece, when Apollo was the god of not only medicine, but also music. In the same Ancient Greece, music was used to relieve stress, treat insomnia and relieve pain. Recent studies confirm the Greeks’ hunches: music really slows down the heartbeat, lowers blood pressure and relieves stress – just to name a few. How does this happen? It is difficult to give a definite answer. Some scholars believe that rhythm is important in music therapy. We are by nature rhythmic: this proves the rhythm of both the heartbeat and the breath. The human brain can distinguish music from noise and respond to the same rhythm, tone and sound.
In many ancient cultures, music was the centerpiece of healing rituals. For the Indians, music did play a vital role and underlay most of the rituals, and the musicians themselves were considered real healers. The same can be said about many other cultures – music has never been left behind in history.
For thousands of years, music and medicine were links in the same chain, but over time, the art of healing with music was replaced by science, and the connection between medicine and music therapy was severed for a long period. Today’s music therapists are catching up step by step, showing the world the power of music and its effectiveness in treating a range of diseases, from depression and chronic pain to Alzheimer’s disease.
How and where does music therapy work?
Annie Geiderscheit has been a music therapist for 29 years. She is one of many professionals who emphasize the effectiveness of music in dealing with psychological trauma. “Only interaction with music can activate absolutely all parts of our brain,” comments Geiderscheit and gives hundreds of successful examples of music therapy, when, by writing, listening to and recreating music, she was able to help patients survive trauma. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
Music therapy has shown results in the fight against insomnia, anxiety and depression. Since the 1980s, attention has been focused on the relationship between music and the cardiovascular system, and even on its ability to mitigate the side effects of chemotherapy. Music is slowly but surely becoming part of medicine as an adjuvant treatment.
Today, music therapy is rapidly making its way to the fore. With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, online sessions have become popular, during which experts help to find harmony with the outside world through music. Back in March 2020, music therapists at a children’s hospital in Minnesota (USA) conducted an online broadcast as an experiment, where they communicated with patients and played live music. If earlier up to 15 people could attend one session, now, thanks to Facebook, this number has grown to 30 thousand, and most of the viewers are not hospital patients at all.
“These sessions mean a lot to people. We help them improve their emotional state,” says Heath Marvel, one of the institution’s practicing therapists.
Music therapy has proven effective in many areas of medicine, but the real breakthrough came in 2014 when the world learned about how music brings dementia patients back to life.
Alive Inside: Music History and memory
Dan Cohen is a social worker who produced the documentary Alive Inside: A History of Music and Memory. Dan and his team have shown that music can give older people suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s a chance to find themselves again. Cohen’s method is very simple – the patient is given an iPod with the music that he liked to listen to in the past. What happens next is difficult to describe in words: people who found it difficult to speak sing and dance, and some begin to recall long-forgotten episodes of life. Listening to “memory” music activates the parts of the brain that are not affected by the disease, which explains the effectiveness of music therapy in the case of dementia.