Taking The Healing Aspect of Music Further

Written by: Sara Chigani, MA, MT-BC

“Oh, I’m not musical” or “I only play the radio” are a couple of typical answers I get after introducing myself as a music therapist. Yes, music is healing and as a board-certified music therapist I take the use of music to promote healing a bit further.

You may not realize it, but our bodies are innately musical. Our heartbeat is the most fundamental beat our body makes and is unique to you. Your unique heartbeat is a rhythm cultivated by the unique size and orientation of all your different organs, valves, and physiology, with your heart being the instrument. Let’s look at your walk as another example, which is also unique to you. Have you ever been able to know who’s walking around just by listening to the sound of their footsteps? That person’s walk is the musical combination of using their shoes, steps, feet, legs, and sometimes their pants to create a unique sounding walk. Lastly, let’s think about our speech. The way we speak becomes a distinct melody which we use to express ourselves. We may use strong louder tones when we express anger, fast higher tones when we are excited, and perhaps slow tones when we are sad, however, that’s unique to each person, too. So, as you can see, whenever anyone responds with “oh, I’m not musical,” I say, “but you are!”

As a board-certified music therapist, it is my job to get to know each of my patients and understand what kind of music they gravitate towards, how they use music in their life, how we can use music to address specific health goals that present a need and create a plan of action going forward. The music that is innate within us is unique to you, so each time I meet a new patient my clinical process is specifically designed for you. That’s what makes music therapy such a well-rounded therapy, because I don’t focus on just the diagnosis, I focus on what makes you, you. As a result, the goal(s) to be worked on during music therapy may not always be the diagnosis itself; it may be outlying symptoms that presented as a result of the diagnosis or something completely unrelated. For that reason, the things we work on in music therapy may be emotional, cognitive, physical, or even spiritual. Take, for example, a person who is admitted to the hospital to receive a bone marrow transplant for a cancer diagnosis. This procedure involves transplanting blood stem cells that travel to the bone marrow to stimulate the growth of new marrow. Typically, when admitted for a bone marrow transplant, that hospitalization is long, usually several weeks to one month. I have met several patients in that very situation and who have begun experiencing depression and anxiety because of their long hospitalization. I can’t give a typical example, because it is unique each time, but sometimes patients experience a loss of purpose during their hospitalization.

Patients usually have a busy life before they are admitted and that all comes to a stop. They have lots of time to think, sometimes a decrease in visitors, and a lot of times patients have to take a break from their job. After I meet the patient, I introduce myself and we typically talk for a bit. I may learn that they have always wanted to learn a certain instrument, but never had the time. That is where I present their opportunity. Learning an instrument that you’ve always wanted to learn, while hospitalized, gives you control back, you’re learning songs you enjoy, and it is a great workout for your brain. Now you might be saying, “so you’re kind of like a music teacher?” Well, yes and no. I am teaching you how to play an instrument, but unlike a music teacher, my goal isn’t for you to become the next Beethoven or John Lennon. My goal in teaching you an instrument is to make learning accessible to you and to help you gain a sense of accomplishment, proving to yourself that you are capable and able to overcome obstacles. If you end up becoming the next Beethoven or John Lennon that would be icing on the cake!

For individuals with oral, head and neck cancer, music therapy can be a great tool to promote communication and expression. The great thing about music is, it can convey a message through just instruments. When you listen to classical or jazz musicians, you can still form an idea of what they are trying to communicate to their audience. We can do the same in music therapy. You may encounter a music therapist that conducts what’s called a “drum circle.” Typically, the music therapist arranges various percussion instruments in a circle and people can start on one instrument and change instruments, as they need. Drum circles are a great place for people to express themselves in a non-verbal way. You are communicating a message on your instrument as others listen and respond to you on their instrument. It may sound a little funny, but it’s amazing to hear how groups of people come together and engage through the music. Not only is it a great way to communicate, but drumming can also decrease anxiety, promote pain relief, improve circulation, lower stress, and promote movement.

I have also worked with patients in the hospital with varying diagnoses, other than cancer. Music is processed throughout the entire brain, which then sends messages to the rest of your body allowing your body to move to the music. As a result, music therapy is a fantastic tool to help rebuild parts of the brain that may have been damaged during a traumatic event. When a person has a stroke, it can impact their ability to communicate. Language is processed in the left side of our brain. Experiencing a stroke that impacts the left side of the brain can affect a person’s ability to speak, which is a disorder called aphasia. Because we use our entire brain to process music, it is not uncommon for a person to still be able to sing after experiencing a stroke. Music therapists use this fascinating ability to help rebuild the damaged areas of the brain by using the surrounding areas that remain intact. So, even though a person may be unable to state their name, we can form their introduction into a song allowing the person to express what they want to say and, in time, making the correlation between singing and speaking.

Remember how I mentioned your walk is musical? With that in mind, let’s take the previous example of a person who encountered a stroke. You may have heard that a stroke can also impact your ability to move one side of your body, specifically your arms and/or legs. Music and movement have such a strong connection, so strong that we use that to help regain a person’s ability to move after a stroke. Have you ever tried to listen to a song with a strong beat and not moved to the music? That’s because music is predictable. The beat is steady and remains the same, which can help promote coordination. Let’s take, for example, the army. If you have ever heard or seen a group of soldiers march together, do they march in silence? No! That would be such a difficult task to get a group of men and women to march in unison without some sort of beat. I think the beat that everyone is most familiar with is, “left, left, left, right, left.” Ah! Now we’re all together!

Even though we do a lot of work with patients directly, I have also worked with the patient’s caregiver(s) as well. Going through an illness is extremely difficult for the patient; however, sometimes it’s just as difficult, if not more so, for the caregiver(s). In the hospital, I often encouraged the caregiver(s) to take a break, whether that is a 5-minute walk down the hall or 20 minutes in the waiting area to read a book. As music therapists, we can also work with the caregiver(s) just as we work with the patient. Not too long ago, I had the opportunity to work with a woman and her husband. The woman had just experienced a traumatic brain injury and was not able to engage with her husband in a lot of ways. After talking with the husband, I discovered a favorite musician of theirs. In talking a bit further, I learned that he also played a little bit of guitar. In our next meeting together, I brought in my guitar and the chords and lyrics to one of their favorite songs by that very musician. As he began to play I joined by singing along. After a couple of times practicing the song, the woman, who typically didn’t acknowledge very many people, turned her head, looked at her husband and gave him a faint smile. Not soon after, the husband shed a few tears sharing how difficult their journey had been. As I was present with him, he had a safe place to release his emotions that he had been hiding, so he could be strong for his wife. However, it allowed them an opportunity to engage with each other in a manner that reminded them of who they are rather than their medical hardships.

It may sound like fun and games, but to become a board-certified music therapist it takes a lot of studying and practice. Music therapy is an actual major in college, that’s 4+ years of school. A music therapy student is a full-fledged music student who takes all the required music classes like music theory, ear training, ensembles, and music history, just to name a few. In addition to all the music classes we must take, we also take biology, anatomy/physiology, psychology, and sociology. During school, we are required to learn the fundamental music therapy instruments: guitar, piano, voice, and percussion. We are tested on our ability to play these instruments, but also how we use them with the various patients we may meet. Throughout our schooling, we attend “practicums” in various settings and observe and work with a supervising board-certified music therapist to learn how they work in the setting they do. I was fortunate to have a wide range of practicum experiences that ranged from a memory care facility for those with severe dementia, children’s hospital, foster care facility for adolescents, and an elementary school. As you can see, music therapy is practiced in many different facilities with a wide variety of people. After we finish our education, we are required to work in a six-month internship where we mature from student to professional. Finally, once those requirements are complete, we take a board exam, which if we pass, we can officially call ourselves a “board-certified music therapist” or “MT-BC”.
Because music is so widely used in many different ways to promote healing, it can be common for a person to be mislabeled as a music therapist or an activity mislabeled music therapy. It is important to be aware of who you are working with and their training. Believe it or not, music can negatively impact a person if used incorrectly or by someone without training. For example, music has such a strong connection to our emotions, sometimes a specific song can make us cry or feel extremely sad. It is what happens after hearing that song that can promote healing and that’s why it’s important to have a trained music therapist there to experience the emotions with you and help you work through them. Music is a powerful healing tool, but it’s how you use it that can take the healing aspect further. To learn more about music therapy, or to find a music therapist in your area, please visit the American Music Therapy Association website at www.musictherapy.org.

Editors Note: Sara Chigani, MA, MT-BC is a board-certified music therapist based in Dallas, TX. Sara received a Bachelor’s of Music Degree from Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA and a Master’s of Arts in Music Therapy from Texas Woman’s University. Sara completed a rigorous music therapy internship at Children’s Medical Center – Dallas and has clinical music therapy experience ranging from neonatal to end of life. She collaboratively began the music therapy program at Baylor University Medical Center – Dallas where she worked with both inpatient and outpatient populations. Sara currently works at KidLinks in Dallas, TX where she provides music therapy for children in need.

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