Three questions came to mind as I prepared to write this article. Why does healthcare need music therapy? Why does therapy need music? Why should healthcare systems invest in specialized therapists trained in utilizing the intricacies of music to improve clinical needs? To answer these questions I could address the evidence-based research displaying the significant neurological findings and behavioral improvements of various vulnerable populations after engaging in prescribed music therapy interventions. But for that I can just direct you to the American Music Therapy Association website (musictherapy.org), and you can peruse the fact sheets which reference the scholarly literature. In this article, I would like to emphasize three elements of music therapy that directly correlate with the needs of the healthcare industry.
First, music therapy is versatile. Music therapy is more versatile than any other rehabilitative or mental health therapy due to the ability to address a variety of patient needs within a spectrum of patient conditions. For example, as a pediatric music therapist, I can work with a medically fragile premature infant and an adolescent who is intubated. Depending on the medical condition or state of the baby, he or she may not be appropriate for range of motion exercises with the physical or occupational therapist or non-nutritive sucking with the speech-language pathologist. However, music being a soothing, non-invasive treatment modality can be effective for medically stable premature infants as young as 24 weeks gestational age to promote neurologic growth and development. While an adolescent who is dependent on a breathing tube and requiring sedation to relax may not be appropriate for talk therapy, they can be appropriate for music therapy to reduce anxiety and improve respiration capabilities. Therefore, music therapy improves patient care because a wider variety of patients can be treated, especially those that may not be appropriate for another type of rehabilitative or talk therapy.
Second, music therapy is person-centered. The basic needs of every human include nutrition, hydration, shelter, and human interaction. No human should be deprived of human interaction. While the hospital building itself provides shelter and the nurses provide nutrition and hydration, music therapy provides a developmentally-rich, positive source of human interaction for patients. The interaction provided by a music therapist differs from that of a volunteer. A music therapist differs from a volunteer due to the music therapist’s training to respond to the subtleties of human behavior, the intervention is chosen and facilitated specifically for the patient to address his or her clinical needs, and the entire session is goal-oriented. Therefore, music therapy improves patient care because the basic necessity for human interaction is being fulfilled in a way that cannot be satisfied by the nurse (who is very busy) or volunteer (who is not trained to provide clinical therapy).
Lastly, music therapy is beautiful. When I meet with parents to update them on their infant’s progress in music therapy, their eyes begin to water with tears. They always to stop my lecture on neurodevelopment to repeat, “he smiles?” Yes, your baby smiles! Parents can be so traumatized by the experience of accompanying their infant’s complex medical journey that they cry when they find out that their baby can smile to music. I explain to them that I create therapeutic music experiences that are accessible to the baby, experiences that meet him or her in the distress, and bring him or her to a better place. This is the therapeutic process, and it is very beautiful. To emphasize the role of beauty, here’s an excellent quote:
“Beauty is the gift that heals the soul. It bypasses the intellect and will and pierces our soul and makes us long for eternity.”
From the research on music and the brain, we know that music bypasses damaged neuroanatomical areas. Music is powerful in its function to create new pathways for improved behavior and in its ability to affect humans emotionally, making them more motivated to engage in therapy. For example, an adolescent hears a familiar song that is recorded or performed live and begins to cry, releasing emotions. The song helps him or her to recall memories and process experiences within the safe, structured bounds of the music experience. While the adolescent may have been reluctant to share, the music becomes a natural conduit for emotional expression due to its ability to “bypass the intellect and will” and pierce our soul to make us long for something greater- for healing, hope, and happiness.
To emphasize the role of music therapy as a facilitator of beauty in healthcare, here is my final example. I was working with a physical therapist to treat an adolescent patient with significant gross motor movement challenges who began to cry during the session. The PT asked him if he was in pain, and he just said, “Man…it’s so beautiful.” He wasn’t pierced by pain in his body. He was pierced by beauty in his soul, and that power, which only music can facilitate, can potentially open the door for even greater therapeutic gains. Overall, music therapy is a must-have in every pediatric hospital to reach more critically ill patients, satisfy more basic and clinical needs, and to function as a powerful conduit of emotional expression- one which no other modality can do in such a direct way.