Music therapy is as old as music itself, but now it’s being recognised among medical professionals, says Joe Brookes.
We are all somewhat aware of the therapeutic qualities of music. Particularly among the current generation of twenty-somethings, you would be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t got their favourite song or artist, which they can go back to in certain situations as a way of alleviating a bad mood. would say this is one of the key reasons we listen to music at all.
On the flip side, music can be used in a range of clinical functions. Research has shown that musical therapy is a useful tool in the treatment of neurological disorders. With diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, it can lead to improvements in interaction, conversation, and other such skills.
Similarly, it has been shown to help treat symptoms of schizophrenia, depression, and amnesia among others. Alongside standard treatment, music therapy can vastly improve the recovery of stroke sufferers, and those who are victims of brain injuries.
Perhaps a famous case of successful music therapy was in the treatment of American politician Gabrielle Giffords, who received a bullet to the brain in what was reportedly an assassination attempt in 2011. Music is said to have been key to her recovery of the ability to speak, her music therapist Meaghan Morrow proclaiming music as the “other road to get back to language”. What Morrow said is in some ways a simplification of one of the key processes that music therapy achieves.
In responding to music, the brain makes cerebral bypasses around the damaged area, in a sense tricking new connections and strengthening weaker channels that are used less by normally developed brains. In the therapy session, this can be achieved by singing; sometimes it is easier to sing words than to say them, and it can help patients access words and sounds that were always there but just hard to reach.
In the treatment of depression, music is again a powerful communicative and non-invasive tool. Not only does this process of tricking, or finding new pathways, happen in the neurology of the brain on a chemical level, but music can be a way of getting things across that speaking about is too painful, too difficult.
“Nothing activates the brain so extensively as music,” says Dr. Oliver Sacks, Professor of Neurology at Columbia University. It helps patients relax, and instils a sense of control in this mellowing out, something that is true for all people.
There is also the empathy in the singing voice; hearing another human being expressing emotions that one might have originally thought only they experienced can help with relieving feelings of isolation.
Alongside other art forms, music is integral to shaping our identities. For students this is manifested in the way people define their fashions as a result of their music taste, and it decides which events they go to, so for many of us it is the central part our social lives.
Seeing the effects music can have on the brain proves that the music we listen to is much more than a soundtrack to our time at university, it is part of the entire mindset that drives us through it. Likewise, the sheer amount of musical activities at King’s (the Ukulele Society and the King’s Chapel Choir to name but a couple) proves that playing music is an important social interaction.
Music therapy is still a relatively young form of medicine, but its values are clear. More degree programmes in the study and training of this kind of therapy are being introduced at universities all over the world. More doctors and therapists are strongly advocating its use, as are the stars themselves: musicians Annie Lennox and Labrinth among others have been named as patrons of the London-based organisation Nordoff-Robbins, which specialises in music therapy sessions and research.
For me personally, having a daily dose of music is my main form of therapy when dealing with London life, and I think it’s high time that we acknowledge the psychological profits of music in its varying applications.