Music is weird stuff – invisible vibrations in the air that can make us laugh, cry, or dance. In the right hands, music can also heal. Music therapy combines evidence-based techniques to achieve clinical goals, improve lives and increase social and community participation.
Every little cell
Recently music therapy has been in the spotlight in Australia with the ‘Every Little Cell’ song, originally developed for cancer patients by Karl Anthony and now re-purposed for anxious young people in the COVID-19 era by Tasmanian music therapist Allison Davies.
After the BBC featured the song, and it was translated into multiple languages, many people around the world who were facing dark times started singing the song and reporting positive results.
The power of music, therapeutically, comes from the connection between melody, rhyme and repetition with positive brain function. Music therapy has both receptive (listening) and active (music-making) forms.
It’s supported by an ever-growing research literature base, particularly in the USA and Europe. Music therapy degrees incorporate elements of psychology, medicine and music, followed by long hours of clinical training.
Success stories of music therapy include stress and pain relief, reducing asthma symptoms, physical rehabilitation of stroke victims, aiding learning difficulties, overcoming addictions, helping problem behaviours in the disabled, treating schizophrenia, assisting with neurological conditions like Parkinsons and Alzheimers, and dealing with anxiety.
Singing back to life
Music therapy is credited with helping US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords regain the ability to speak after being shot.
There’s a wonderful story from Germany, which has a long history with music therapy, about a businessman who was hit by a truck and found himself in a very deep coma. There were doubts about whether he would ever wake up, but a committed music therapist sang to him regularly in hospital, and eventually he returned to consciousness, using the song as a kind of internal safety rope.
The man clearly remembered the singer’s voice, and her songs, and later said the experience both saved and transformed his life. There are other coma patients with similar stories.
Listening to mathematics
Music is the only activity that completely combines the physical, spiritual, emotional, mathematical, tactile, social and artistic aspects of being human. As a result, it has a unique power over our complete selves, and in particular the intersecting, layered rhythms that keep us alive; those of heart, lungs and brain.
While there are many different types of music therapy, what they have in common is some form of interaction. Beyond just listening, doing is best, therapeutically – even if the doing is just banging a box or humming a note or tapping a foot.
At the other end of the interactive scale, guided songwriting as music therapy takes things into a whole different dimension.
Earworms and death metal aside, music is all pretty much non-invasive, safe and motivating. Bob Marley could have been talking about music therapy when he sang, ‘One good thing about music, when it hits, you feel no pain.’
Unlike some forms of therapy!