Is music therapy?

Written by my partner Lewis, a musician who is currently undertaking a PhD

I studied music at University after a short period of studying physics and then spent 20 years performing, teaching and composing music. Some might say that puts me in a perfect position to discuss this topic.

After all, I have spent a large part of my life manipulating people’s emotions as a composer and performer. I have also spent a lot of time working with young people and their minds, often telling them, “I’m not here to make great musicians but better students. The former would be a bonus”.

But that’s exactly where my reservations lie. I’m biased. Of course, I’m biased. I’m a musician who is writing a post for Elaine about music therapy. So that’s why I went looking for evidence. That little stint in physics had some uses. I am a firm believer in the scientific method and evidence-based solutions to problems.

I have been reading a few things here and there over the years about neurology and music and have been quite stunned by some of the things scientists are finding out about music and our minds. But while researching studies for this post, I came across something that I wasn’t aware of. It’s not music-related but says something to me about how we all approach therapy in general.

It seems that studies in the US, the UK and Australia have found that their populations are, on the whole, not very literate when it comes to mental health. A lot of people would rather seek out help that is more in keeping with their philosophical beliefs than seek an evidence-based treatment.

Today, I can say with a smile on my face that things are improving. In Northern Ireland, Cognitive Behavioural therapy is being taught to teenagers as standard in schools. Our future population is already improving its mental health literacy. It wasn’t like that when I was growing up. In fact, general health literacy wasn’t so good either. Let me tell you a story.

When I was a young boy, I heard my parents and aunts talk about me one day when I felt very poorly. Supposedly, I had a fly inside me. Or that’s what I thought they meant. It turned out I had the flu, but my version was more exciting or terrifying if you’re that way inclined.

That night I felt very unwell. I remember it well, as many of us do when it’s a bad memory. My father came into my room because I was crying. (Awwww, poor wee Lewis) My temperature was very high, and he did what they did in those days. He wrapped me in more blankets and lay beside me so I could benefit from his 13 stone of radiant heat, roasting my brain slowly.

That was fatherly love in the seventies. Today, of course, we know that that is a foolish thing to do. It can cause a child to have a febrile seizure or fever fit, but my father believed in the ‘Feed the fever and starve the cold’ adage. He was doing his very best, and I’m sure he wasn’t enjoying my begging for air and cold air at that.

Enough with disturbing you with mental imagery. Let’s get back to music therapy. You’re probably wondering what all that has to do with it.

When I first heard of music therapy as a young student in university, I didn’t really think of it as something based on science. Why would I? In fact, until recent years, I had the same thoughts about meditation, despite having practised it a little in my youth. Surely these are things more related to someone’s chi, their soul, their inner fairy… whatever the person’s belief system may be but not science-based. Surely, it’s one of those things the ‘oul lad’ probably believes in, like when he tried to kill me with love.

Music is how we communicate beauty and emotions, love and tension. It’s not a description of how the big bang happened and never will be, but we tend to forget that the very thing that creates music is physical and is the very thing that music therapy seeks to heal—our brains.

With the invention of fMRI, there has been a revolution in what we understand about the brain. Scientists can now see the effect music has on the brain, not only in the short term but in the long term, and the evidence looks good for music therapy.

Many of the studies I have looked at do not say that music is a cure for depression. It is very definitely not. It is complementary to standard care; the pharmacological and talking treatments used by general practitioners, psychiatrists (the pharmacological) and psychologists (the talking treatments).

What it does for all of us is make treatment more attractive. That might seem like a trite statement to make, but on the whole, the studies would seem to show that people attend their mental health treatment more readily when music therapy is part of it. We are not a mental health literate society…. yet… and music therapy would seem to be a gateway to improving that. After all, we can’t wait for our kids to educate us.

That can only have a beneficial effect on society as a whole, like depression, stress and anxiety impact our economies and our family lives.

There are, of course, many other effects that music has, and that evidence shows us, such as providing pain relief. It also has a profound effect on children’s education, with studies showing that children who have formal musical education will generally perform better academically than those who do not. My personal favourite is, of course, that it’s just so bloody beautiful.

So what is music therapy?

Well, for a start, do you remember I said I first heard about music therapy while at university? It will help if you read something into that.

I am a musician. Not a music therapist. I am very well educated in music and have extended that knowledge over many, many years. Even travelling to Kazakhstan to research their native music for some of my compositions. I can sit in a room of musicians and have a conversation that many of them won’t understand because I’m one of those annoying esoteric, arty, farty musicians. But what I am not is a music therapist.

If I want music therapy, I will go to someone who has been trained to at least a graduate-level in music therapy. I will not go to Micky down the road, who will tell me that I am resistant to the therapy because in my childhood I might have heard my granny mention that in a past life her dog was probed by flute playing aliens….” that’ll be €100 or a pint please”.

Just because Micky owns a guitar and is a very talented musician does not make him a music therapist. He has not been trained as a music therapist, and he won’t be one until he has been trained.

What I can tell you is that music therapy can take a few forms. It can be active and receptive.

Active music therapy usually involves playing music in some fashion. Usually, this is improvised and does not require you to be a musician. After all, this business of being a musician has only really existed for hundreds of years and not thousands. Before then, everyone was a musician. The idea of a specialist musician did not exist, which runs well with my own personal philosophies.

Some studies of improvising musicians show that they can, for want of a better phrase, turn off their frontal lobe. Some studies of music therapy show long-term effects on the frontal lobe of depression patients that improve the patient’s well-being. I will not say there is a correlation between those two studies, but it certainly intrigues me.

Receptive music therapy involves listening to music and no active participation in the music performance. Both these forms of music therapy are combined with more standard treatment.

To me, the latter of the two therapies also suggests something that we can do for ourselves in the general upkeep of our mental health. Receptive music therapy is often used alongside relaxation techniques and meditation. These, of course, are also used in standard therapy, as our brains are elastic and not fixed. So consistent practice can actually shape our physical brains for the better.

On that thought, let me give you some advice about the music you should use should you wish to try a self-help approach to receptive music therapy. Yes, I have composed music for relaxation and meditation here on this site, but my advice isn’t to rush to our store and buy it. It’s more general than that, and I really do believe that your taste should have some say in it.

My first piece of advice… Use instrumental music. Music with words will be a distraction from what you are trying to achieve. You do not want the feelings of love that the singer has for someone called Baby. You don’t really want to care who split up with who and how ice is as hot as fire or some other nonsensical drivel. Oops, the musical snob is escaping onto the page. But in all seriousness, it is a distraction and will be affecting particular parts of your brain that you are trying to relax. Instrumental music will affect many parts of your brain (there is no one musical part of the brain), and engaging in mostly your speech centre (Broca’s area) will be distracting to that.

My second piece of advice is to use slow and soft music. Most of us will think… ‘Duh… of course,’ but I have heard young people suggest that music that they might hear while out at a nightclub relaxes them. The reality is, it may make you feel happy, but that is short-lived and because it is a stimulant. Coffee makes me happy, but I don’t want it when I’m trying to relax.

My third piece of advice is this. Listen to what you enjoy to relax while following the above recommendations. There have actually been studies of whether the new age, panpipe stuff works better than classical music when treating people with music for pain relief. The consensus is that classical music works best, but none of the studies I saw said why. My own personal beliefs are that this might be due to a cultural bias of some sort, and I say that while hating new age pan pipe drivel with all the musical snobbery I can muster. But it’s not for me to decide. It’s for you to decide that.

And on that note, listen to what makes you feel happy. This isn’t something that’s uniform. We take different things from music, which can be affected by our upbringing, our musical education, and so on. While I was a laboratory assistant in a hospital in Belfast, I used to put the radio on a classical channel when I was alone. The other lab assistants would come back while listening to something I thought was beautiful and would say, ‘get that depressing stuff off and put on something crappy FM’. No matter how much of a musical snob I may be, I can’t argue with what another person feels.

My last piece of advice is to use meditation techniques with the music. After all, that’s what some music therapists would do with you if you were to see them, and it’s also what a psychologist would advise you to do, in particular mindfulness meditation. You can also combine some binaural beats with this if you believe that will help.

I hope that gives you some insight into music therapy. I know I learned a lot researching this.

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