Music has contributed to medical healing since Aristotle and Plato, and became a regular form of therapy for wounded soldiers after both world wars. Since then, professional musicians and medical professionals have formalized music therapy to aid patients with a variety of illnesses and injuries. Michigan State University opened the first accredited program in 1944, and today 73 college campuses offer degrees in the field. Music therapy is more than playing a song to enhance a patient’s mood. The American Music Therapy Association defines it as “clinical and evidence-based use of music . . . to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals.”
Gabrielle Giffords Found her Voice
Many recall that horrific day when a deranged gunman shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords outside a Tucson supermarket in January 2011. Giffords survived with a severe head injury and a bleak outlook, in a coma unable to speak.
Music has been integral to her recovery. She suffered from aphasia, the inability to speak resulting from brain damage. When this otherwise outspoken politician could hardly utter basic words, song jarred her memory and led her to regaining speech.
Song lyrics are so embedded in our brains that patients find it easier to sing a familiar song than to speak a basic sentence. Medical professionals often start by asking patients to sing “Happy Birthday.”
Language is generally stored in the left hemisphere while music exists in both. Doctors find music therapy can recreate a language sector in the right hemisphere when the left is damaged. Giffords has done just that, has appeared publicly to curb gun violence, and has left open the chance to return to office.
MusiCorps at Walter Reed
The MusiCorps program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, teaches combat victims to play musical instruments. Founder Arthur Bloom, a composer and orchestra performer, created MusiCorps in 2007 when called in to help a soldier re-learn the drums without the leg he lost in battle. This intense rehabilitation program has since helped hundreds of soldiers recover, mixing specially-assembled computer-based music, professional lessons, and traditional instruments.
Far too many musician-soldiers return from Iraq or Afghanistan unable to strum their guitar or to tickle the ivories. The program re-teaches them with prosthetic devices, or to start playing anew. The introduction of an instrument returns a lost smile. Striking the right chord presents a sense of hope and creates a vehicle to recovery.
“There was this one victim, he was not talking, not making eye-contact,” Bloom recalls an extreme case. “One day he picked up a guitar and never really put it down. His personality came back. He woke up.”
The Wounded Warrior Band, a fluid group of five to twelve MusiCorps members, has performed with Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, Yo-Yo Ma, and the Kansas City Symphony. They recently played with Aaron Neville on The Colbert Report.
At a Hospital Near You
In addition to these national examples, music therapy helps countless patients in hospitals around the country. Music Therapy Coordinator Brian Schreck at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital plays instruments, teaches music, and coordinates efforts to heal the sick. He and five other therapists serve a wide variety of cancer, organ transplant, and hospice patients every day.
“Each patient we serve is individually assessed,” says Schreck. “Like every other kind of medical therapy, this service is relationship based.” Schreck and fellow colleagues see as many as 600 patients a month, and served nearly 10,000 with music therapy last year.
Music therapy has come a long way since its formalization in the post-war era, and traditional doctors sing its praises. “I have personally seen a great benefit for several of our oncology patients,” declares one Children’s Hospital doctor. “Music therapy has added a whole new dimension to patient outcomes,” another claims, “as children, families, and staff increase self-esteem and decrease pain.”
The above article first appeared in the October issue of Telescope magazine.