Many individuals find music to be therapeutic. The right playlist can uplift your mood and get you through the day. But, from a neurological perspective, music therapy is a bit more complicated than listening to your favorite tunes.
What Is Music Therapy?
The American Music Therapy Association defines music therapy as “the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within the therapeutic relationship.” It’s practiced by credentialed professionals who have completed an approved music therapy program.
Christy Pansegrau, a Board-Certified Music Therapist at Summit Therapy, is one such professional. She describes how music therapy works by stimulating the brain in certain ways. “Music is the only stimulus that activates every area of the brain. When you are actively engaged in the music-making process, your brain is fully engaged. Your motor centers work together with your brain stem to predict when each motion should occur. Long- and short-term memory is working together, thinking of the melody and what was just played, as well as any memories of the song or the act of making music and what those memories bring up.”
The speech center of the brain is also engaged in the lyrics or the nonverbal communication between the individual and others they’re making music with. The music therapist takes all those natural responses to music making and designs accessible music interventions that target and exercise specific areas of the brain and body in order to help maximize recovery.
Christy cites one notable example of successful music therapy, Senator Gabriel Giffords, who suffered a gunshot through the speech center of her brain. “Music therapy was a large part of her speech rehabilitation, because when you sing, both the speech center and the music center on the other side of the brain light up. Using the brain’s neuroplasticity, her music therapist and speech therapist helped to rewrite the music center of her brain for speech.”
From Newborn to End-of-Life: The Many Applications of Music Therapy
Music therapists work in all types of settings, from the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) to hospice. In the NICU, music therapists help premature babies adapt to their sensory environment, bond with their mothers, and even learn to feed themselves through a device called a pacifier activated lullaby (PAL). “Every time a baby suckles, the device plays a recording of mom singing a lullaby. That positive reinforcement helps them to learn to feed faster, so they can go home sooner,” notes Pansegrau.
Music therapy is widely used in children who have Down syndrome, Williams syndrome, cerebral palsy, and autism. Therapists also work in psychiatric and rehabilitation settings, treating patients who have mental health issues, anxiety, depression, and who require detox. In hospital settings, music therapists address pain management and coping skills, especially with cancer and other difficult diagnoses.
“I have spent a large part of my career working with Parkinson’s and stroke patients. I’m fascinated with how much music can impact these neurological conditions. Another population that’s been near and dear to my heart is Alzheimer’s and dementia care – all the way through hospice and end of life. There are so many different ways that music can help people address a really wide variety of needs,” shares Pansegrau.
One misconception Pansegrau wants to clear up is that you have to know how to play music to participate in music therapy. The reality is, patients really don’t need to know anything about music to realize its benefits. “Because of our brain’s neurological predisposition to respond to music, literally everyone, regardless of ability, music or otherwise, can find benefit in seeing a music therapist,” she adds.
Finding Beauty in the Struggle
Throughout her years as a music therapist, Pansegrau has been a part of many success stories – from helping family members cope with end-of-life scenarios to integrating kids into the classroom. But, one of her favorite encounters involves a young man in an adult family home who is primarily nonverbal.
“We were working on upper arm extensions, and he was enabled to create this beautiful nonverbal dialogue using music, all while meeting the goals for his upper arm extension. You should have seen the big smile on his face as he got to share in the fun, connecting experience, where he was heard and understood by those around him without having to talk at all. I was able to create this experience in such a way that he was able to make choices and be independent. And that’s something that’s really valuable, especially for kiddos with disabilities. Music really is a powerful tool.”