“Music therapy, to me, is music performance without the ego. It’s not about entertainment as much as its about empathizing. If you can use music to slip past the pain and gather insight into the workings of someone else’s mind, you can begin to fix a problem.Jodi Picoult
It has been suspected for quite a while that music can strengthen and heal the body and brain, but it is only recently that science has been able to prove how.
Music therapy is the clinical utilization of music to achieve individualized goals with an accredited music therapy professional. Clinical therapy is much more than just listening to and playing music—it is “a professional, research-based discipline that actively applies supportive science to the creative, emotional, and energizing experiences of music for health treatment and educational goals.
One recent initiative called Sound Health combines the scientific and creative worlds in order to inspire more research into music therapy. It investigates how listening to, performing or making music can harness the brain’s ability to improve health and well-being.
Sound Health is a partnership between National Institutes of Health and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. They’ve teamed up with eminent soprano Renée Fleming to “move music therapy forward as a discipline [and] to educate the public and enlighten people about the power of music to heal.”
Fleming has been giving talks about music’s power to heal at her performances including researchers and music therapists in the discussion. She took part in a demonstration of brain imaging focusing on expressions of creativity. She performed several actions during the monitoring of her brain activity: singing, imagining singing, and listening to music. “In my case, the findings were a little bit surprising because the most powerful of the three in terms of brain activation was imagining singing,” she says.
“Before I had surgery, they told me I could never walk again. But when I sat and listened to music, I forgot all about the pain.”Ida Goldman
Many people can benefit from music therapy. The American Music Therapy Association lists children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly with mental health needs, developmental and learning disabilities, Alzheimer’s disease,
According to National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins, music can help Parkinson’s patients walk with a steady gait, help stroke survivors recover the ability to speak, and give cancer patients relief from chronic pain.
Even healthy individuals can improve their lives with music. Those who are healthy can use music for stress reduction by making music, as well as by using passive listening for relaxation.
Collins says the goal is to better understand how our bodies work, then to use that understanding to help people live longer, healthier lives. The NIH and other music therapists do so through research. Says Collins:
“I’m fascinated by the ways that music overlaps with other processes in the brain. When you sing or play an instrument, it doesn’t just activate one part of your brain: a whole constellation of brain areas becomes active. And some of these musical areas are partially shared with activities like speaking, which if disrupted can have devastating consequences. An amazing thing about this overlap is that when the normal speech pathway in the brain is damaged, music can sometimes be used as an alternate path.”
When you sing or play an instrument, it doesn’t just activate one part of your brain: a whole constellation of brain areas becomes active. These findings have revealed a new form of therapy for survivors of stroke. When someone has a stroke that damages the left side of the brain, it can cut off the normal language pathway and make it hard for the person to speak. Therapists will work with stroke patients to sing phrases like “I am thirsty” to use that alternate, musical path instead of the damaged one. It takes a lot of work and practice, like training a muscle, but stroke survivors have used this technique to learn to speak again.
What’s on the frontier of music therapy research? Renée Fleming says it’s the potential of music to connect us with our emotional life. “That’s valuable and not really well understood,” Fleming says. “Also the connection to music and memory. Our senses are hardwired to be used in terms of memory and music is one of the most powerful of these triggers.”
To learn more about music’s healing effect on our brains and bodies, and on Renée Fleming’s work with Sound Health, please visit The American Music Therapy Association, How Music Heals by Brent Crane, and the Sound Health website.