Benefits of Music Therapy

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How children’s recoveries and progress are aided by soothing tunes

Earlier this month, CBS4 in Indianapolis ran a story about a young boy whose life was saved by music therapy. After weeks of symptoms that ranged from stomach bugs to fevers and other ailments including loss of balance, multiple trips to doctors and even emergency rooms yielded no answers until late March, when the young boy was diagnosed with medulloblastoma—which had already spread in the form of four separate tumors on his spinal cord.

After emergency brain surgery, the child was nearly unresponsive, non-communicative, and struggled to participate in physical and occupational therapy. That’s when one of the two music therapists at Riley Hospital for Children paid the child a visit.

The therapist, Caitlin Krater, asked what the toddler’s favorite songs were, and began playing them. Immediately, the boy’s eye began to flutter.

“I could see his eyes light up. I could see he was following along with me. He knew all the words, he knew what was coming next,” she told CBS4.

It was a long process, but eventually, the child was able, with the help of his mother, to hold some of the musical instruments and play along with the songs. Eventually, the toddler became stronger physically and vocally thanks in large part to the musical therapy.

He started talking and moving on his own again. He was eventually released from the hospital, but still had months of difficult chemotherapy treatments ahead of him.

It’s a long road ahead for the child. Even his doctor admits there is a greater than 50 percent chance of recurrence in the next five years. But as his mother says, the focus is on celebrating each victory. Music therapy has provided a path to many more years of happiness.

“Watching his video when we put it all together and remembering when I first met him in April to see him now saying full sentences, performing and really getting into the music is just something that makes me realize this is what I should do,” said Krater, his therapist. “To see him benefiting from that? I can’t ask for anything else.”

The boy’s story is great example of triumph and the ability to use music as a complementary therapy to the typical regimen to help a sick, injured, or disabled individual rediscover their personality. The practice has roots in philosophy and Native American culture, but first became popular in the mainstream during World Wars I and II, when community musicians were recruited to volunteer their time to play for the wounded in hospitals.

Almost immediately, nurses noticed a difference in mood and the positive emotional responses elicited by the music. For their part, patients admitted an improved outlook on life and experiencing less pain. In fact, so great was the response that doctors began hiring musicians to play for the wounded soldiers.

These days, as in the story of toddler in Indiana, music therapy is enjoyed by everyone from children to adults. The ability to tailor the therapy regimen to an individual patient is one aspect therapists claim to most enjoy. While some, like the small boy in the story, enjoy playing and singing along, others may be inspired by the challenge of learning to play an instrument, while others might enjoy writing their own song, singing, or simply listening to favorite songs.

The mental and physical relief provided by music is particularly beneficial to children, who are perhaps more easily distracted from an ordeal by a pleasant respite or task.

Tangible Health Benefits

Not only can music therapy improve a patient’s outlook and mood, there are tangible health benefits researchers are beginning to appreciate. These include:

  • Improved respiration
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improved cardiac output
  • Reduced heart rate
  • Relaxed muscle tension

Patients also perceive treatment as having a greater effectiveness due to a reduction in pain, increased relaxation, and lowered anxiety levels.

Professor Suzanne Hanser, EdD, MT-BC, of the Berklee College of Music, told the Peterson Family Foundation there is a protocol for pain management through music therapy.

“It is based on a cognitive behavioral model of therapy, which posits that new thoughts, feelings and body states may be conditioned to replace dysfunctional patterns. Specifically, a relaxed body and pleasant visual images may replace tension and worry when they are conditioned as a response to familiar, calming music. The conditioning process takes place when listening to this music is paired with deep relaxation through repeated practice. Over time, the music alone cues the response. The music therapy protocol is designed to perform several functions:

  • To direct attention away from pain or anxiety, distracting the listener with comforting music.
  • To provide a musical stimulus for rhythmic breathing.
  • To offer a rhythmic structure for systematic release of body tension.
  • To cue positive visual imagery.
  • To condition a deep relaxation response.
  • To change mood.
  • To focus on positive thoughts and feelings and to celebrate life.”

SOURCES: CBS4 Indy, Peterson Family Foundation

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Rob Senior
Rob Senior

Rob has 15 years of experience writing and editing for healthcare. He previously worked for ADVANCE from 2002 to 2012.

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