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M is for Music Therapy

By Malika Noor Mehta

Music soothes the soul. And in these incredibly challenging times, who doesn’t need a bit of soothing?

Music is a fundamental aspect of human existence. Throughout history, across continents, music has situated itself at the very core of religion, culture and even science. As human beings, we register music differently from how we register noise. We understand tune, rhythm, and tone. We drum to a beat. We move and dance, clap and click to the rhythm of a song. We sing to a tune (and sometimes, without one). We create music with instruments and without them. We love music. In all of its forms.

In the realm of mental health, music plays a unique role. Music therapy has become a powerful, promising field. Among its various benefits, music therapy helps individuals deal with stress, build emotional strength and resilience, improve memory retention, and manage physical pain. As we navigate a world ravaged by COVID-19 and live in constant, unrelenting fear of losing our loved ones, finding a quiet moment to listen to a calming tune may help relieve anxiety – if only for a moment. So try it. I have, and it works. And for those who are looking for a longer-term, deeper solution to the trials and tribulations of this world, let’s examine music therapy in a bit more detail.

What is music therapy and who can practice it?

Music therapy uses music, in all its forms, to address a person’s emotional, mental, social, physical and cognitive needs and challenges. People of all ages can participate in this form of therapy. An individual does not need to be musically inclined, play an instrument, or know how to sing to benefit from music therapy. People struggling with mental and physical conditions, as well as people who do not necessarily need help, can benefit from this therapy. The beauty of this particular intervention is that it can be as complex or as simple as the client decides and wants. A music therapist will work closely with a client to identify the goals of therapy and try hard to help the client reach these objectives.

Individuals who become certified music therapists are often musicians who have developed a keen understanding of how music stimulates, heals, relaxes and calms the mind. While music therapists invariably possess a wide repertoire of musical abilities and styles, they are also well versed in a range of clinical skills, including, but not limited to psychological conditions, cognitive neuroscience, effective communication, chronic pain management etc. Music therapists are individuals who have recognized the power of music and are trying to use their musical skills to help others.

Depending on the client, the therapist and the particular goals they have collectively decided upon, a music therapy session might include playing a musical instrument or learning to play one, listening to music and discussing what emotions it evokes, or even using new-age technology to create a beat. Music therapy can vary in genre – everything from electropop to classical opera can be used to help a person’s emotional and mental wellbeing.

How can music therapy help us?

Research has demonstrated that music therapy works! It can improve the quality of life in a variety of ways. Here are just a few of its benefits:

Music improves medical outcomes

In our COVID-19 world, health is atop everyone’s mind. This virus has caused an unprecedented level of anxiety. Given these circumstances, it is important to note how helpful music can be in instances of ill health.

Alleviating anxiety during major medical procedures: Research done through controlled clinical trials found that people who listened to music while going through cardiac angiograms, knee surgeries, and colonoscopies faced dramatically less anxiety during the procedures. They also required fewer sedatives. Those who regularly listened to music during their recovery process used less opioid medication for pain management. Similar results were found in a study done with forty cataract patients around the age of 74, as well as 80 patients going through urologic surgeries. In each instance, music helped calm the patient, relieve stress, and lower blood pressure and heart rates.

Lessening the negative after-effects of cancer therapies: With cancer patients, music has been found to significantly reduce the anxiety associated with radiotherapy and chemotherapy. In particular, music has reduced the amount of nausea and vomiting in patients post these therapies.

Assisting in the restoration of speech: Research shows that music therapy can help individuals who have suffered from a stroke or damage to the left side of the brain that controls speech. In particular, singing can help this recovery process because song is controlled by the right side of the brain. Therefore, a patient can begin by singing their thoughts out loud in therapy, and then gradually re-learn how to drop the melody in order to speak. U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, employed this particular form of music therapy while recovering from aphasia, a complex speech and language disorder, caused by a gunshot wound to her brain.

Managing pain: Music therapy has been shown to reduce short-term pain as well as chronic pain due to conditions like arthritis. Research demonstrates that music therapy not only helps lessen the perception of pain in the patient’s mind, but also gives the individual a greater sense of control over his or her body. By doing this, music therapy decreases the patient’s reliance upon pain medication.

Music improves mood: Cheerful, upbeat music lightens people’s moods. Among individuals of all ages, music has the ability to make people feel alert, attentive, energetic and even joyful. In critical studies conducted in the mid 90s, music therapy was found to have significant benefits in combating depression.

Music in the pandemic

Last March, when the world first went into lockdown videos of Italian musicians playing instruments on their balconies went viral. There was something so charming and so calming about listening to these musicians play their tunes, even if we were forced to listen to them through our computers and telephones. There was something uniting and meaningful about great opera singers, professional instrumentalists, as well as young music students sharing their gifts for free to help all of us deal with our collective fear and grief. In those moments, we celebrated our shared humanity and commiserated in our shared pain, all through their music. They played. We listened.

This year, as India locks down again, some of us return to music to calm our nerves and ease our anxiety. Whether it is by playing our favourite songs on Spotify, humming to ourselves to distract our mind from our current reality, or tapping out a new beat on the table as we daydream. Others might decide to reach out to a certified music therapist and find a structured way in which to handle their fears and anxieties. There is no singular way in which to care for our mental and emotional wellbeing. The path is winding and always subjective.

In these trying times, look to the simple things like music to help you. Let a soothing tune lull you to sleep. Let an upbeat song move you to dance. Let your mind wander as you sing along to your favourite pop song. And if you feel so inclined, reach out to a professional music therapist and see how you can create new pathways for healing.


About the author

Malika Noor Mehta is a mental health entrepreneur. Before the pandemic, she was engaged in creating a fellowship program that placed mental health counsellors in low-cost schools in Mumbai. Her interest in mental health stems from her teaching experience at Teach for India and her time in Jordan and Greece, creating trauma-sensitive education programs for Syrian refugees. She holds a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. In her free time, she loves to write and take photographs.



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