banner by Matthew Stoss

The Healing Tones of Music Therapy

by Michaela Shreyer

Meet Christopher Duffley, a young man that has overcome adversity few can fathom. Exposed prenatally to cocaine, Christopher was born in 2001 fourteen weeks premature, weighing 1 pound and 12 ounces. Due to his premature birth, his eyes never fully developed leaving him completely blind. He was placed into foster care after spending the beginning months of his life in the hospital, and was eventually adopted by his biological aunt and uncle. Slow to develop and incapable of productive communication, Christopher was diagnosed with autism at the age of five. His adoptive parents attempted various types of therapies with little success in an attempt to stimulate Christopher’s development. After exhausting all their options, they eventually turned to music therapy. Christopher’s life crescendoed to new heights as a result. Music therapy helped Christopher to process thoughts differently and to express himself through music. He had a high aptitude for music, possessing perfect pitch and the ability to learn musical instruments quickly, and was soon able to communicate strictly through song. Gradually, he further improved his speech, language and critical thinking. Music allowed Christopher to access the skills he possessed in a holistic way, incorporating creativity and rhythm to create cohesive communication. Christopher says that music has helped him to see with his heart. “I do have physical eyes, but I can’t see with them because I am blind. I see with my hands and heart and other senses.” Music therapy has given Christopher a life in which social interaction and success is possible. But Christopher is not alone. Music therapy touches many lives each and every day.

Music therapy is gaining popularity across the country due to its positive effects on patients in a variety of medical disciplines. It has become particularly popular in Pennsylvania, especially in Pittsburgh. Alternative forms of therapy can produce incredible results that traditional medicine may not be able to achieve. The impact of alternative therapies on patients suffering from a variety of illnesses supports the idea that medicine is interdisciplinary, relying heavily on science as well as other fields such as music. The innovative approaches of music therapy introduce opportunities for new aspects of medicine to be explored and applied.

What is Music Therapy?

Music therapy is the utilization of music to address the emotional, psychological, cognitive, physical and social needs of a patient. Music therapists use music as a tool to provide distraction from anxiety and pain by turning the focus away from the patient’s condition and toward relaxation and comfort. Often patients engage in music-making themselves through drumming or singing. This involvement allows patients to cope with anger, anxiety and depression while evoking feelings of joy and relief.

But what is it about music therapy that makes it so emotionally uplifting and physically beneficial to patients? Music therapists describe music as something that is innately a part of the human body and mind. We possess a heartbeat, an intrinsic rhythm that is fundamental to both life and music. Music is nondiscriminatory and can reach individuals globally; it is accessible to people of nearly all walks of life. The goal of music therapy is to make music available to a specific patient and help them cope with their condition by drawing a connection to some emotion through song.

Who Can Music Therapy Reach?

Music therapy is used to help patients with a wide range backgrounds, conditions and ages. Though often met with skepticism, music therapy has been proven effective in individuals suffering from anxiety disorders, veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), elderly Alzheimer’s patients and many more. However it has been most effective and widely used in children: including infants in neonatal intensive care units, children fighting terminal illnesses and children diagnosed with autism.

Music therapy is used to treat many children here in Pittsburgh at the Children’s Hospital. The goals of music therapists at Children’s Hospital change with each patient and with each new day. A music therapist at Children’s Hospital, Deborah Benkovitz says, “Our goal may be to cheer them up and have them be happier, if they are in pain, our goal is to reduce pain, if they are very anxious about something, our goal is to reduce anxiety.” Children’s Hospital also employs techniques that are unique in that they use music to aid in both psychological and physiological ways. For example, music therapists are often called to perform at tempos that match that of an infant’s beating heart in order to stabilize heartbeat, blood pressure, respiratory rate and oxygen saturation. This technique is often beneficial to children that are unconscious or sedated.

Children’s Hospital’s music therapist Nicole Steele stresses the importance of not only playing and engaging in music, but also forming a relationship with the patients as they journey through different stages of their illnesses and recovery processes.  She explains, “Sometimes I see them in a lot of pain, and sometimes we’re dancing down the hallway.” By exposing children to music in all stages of their illness, these patients develop an anchor in music; music allows them to access feelings of joy in times of pain, and harness relaxation in times of anxiety.

Where do we go from here?

As the demand for music therapy increases, so too does the number of lives that are changed for the better. According to the United States Department of Labor, the field of music therapy is increasing in growth nationwide by 13% per year. Parents, caregivers, family members and most importantly patients are recognizing the profound benefit that music therapy offers to the recovery and well-being of sick individuals, and more people are hoping to take advantage of this innovative therapy. In an interview with the mother of a child diagnosed with autism at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh she urges, “Anybody who hasn’t tried it ought to try it one time and just see what it’s like, because I think they’d love it.” Music therapy is bringing care and comfort to patients in ways that have never been accessed before, and people everywhere are tuning one measure closer to recovery through the power of music.