Hitting a High Note With Music Therapy
Hitting a High Note With Music Therapy
As a complementary form of depression treatment, music therapy may help free you from the crippling grip of a major depressive disorder.
By Barbara Sadick
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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It's music to your ears — a surge in the use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) by Western physicians is changing the practice of medicine. Therapies such as music, meditation, acupuncture, yoga, and art are becoming part of a new integrative approach to medicine that combines the best of conventional care with the best evidence-based CAM, now found in most major United States medical facilities.
The Origin of Modern Music Therapy
The use of music for healing dates back to at least the time of the ancient Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato. Modern music therapy originated in 1943, during World War II, as veterans returned home shell-shocked — the word used in the 1940s to describe soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Catatonic, disturbed, depressed, and unable to function, thousands were institutionalized. When volunteer societies were formed to visit military hospitals to play music for returned soldiers, it became apparent that the music was reaching and awakening seriously disturbed veterans. That's when the term music therapy was used for the first time.
By 1950, with the founding of the National Association for Music Therapy (NAMT), music therapy was established as a discipline. The NAMT oversaw the creation of a board-certification program and the growth of the industry from less than 50 therapists to thousands. Formed by a merger of the NAMT with another music therapy association, the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) was founded in 1998 and is now the largest music therapy organization in the world, representing, advocating, and setting standards for music therapists in the United States and more than 30 other countries.
How Music Therapy Heals
Music therapy is the use of music to address emotional, psychological, or cognitive areas of function. "Good music therapy is evidence-based treatment with a plan and a goal requiring a relationship with a professional music therapist,” explained Brian Jantz, director of the music therapy program at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Although self-treatment may also be beneficial, that isn’t music therapy.
“Music supports a state of mind to empower people to do things they couldn’t do before to enhance well-being,” said Suzanne Hanser, chair and director of the music therapy program at Berklee College of Music in Boston. “Music therapists work with individuals who are unable to put feelings into words by helping them create sounds to communicate what they’re feeling and to access those feelings so they can express them in a non-verbal medium.”
Music Therapy and Depression
Feelings of hopelessness, sadness, loss, anger, or frustration due to depression can interfere with everyday life for weeks or longer and may require long-term treatment. In the United States, mental disorders, including major depression disorder, or MDD, affect tens of millions of people each year, most of whom are never treated.
A number of studies have been done to evaluate music therapy to treat depression. One 2011 study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry involved 79 people between the ages of 18 and 50 with depression. Forty-six received antidepressants, psychotherapy, and counseling, and the other 33 were given the same treatment, but with an additional 20 music therapy sessions. Participants were followed after treatment, when it was determined that those who received music therapy experienced fewer symptoms of depression and reported an improved sense of overall well-being. These findings suggest that music therapy added to other treatments for depression is helpful, especially for those with a deep attachment to and love for music.
Philip Wesley, a musician and music therapist, has suffered from severe depression and said that not enough studies have been conducted with mentally ill adults. The research, according to Wesley, hasn’t adequately captured the ways in which people have benefited from music therapy. “A successful music therapy session,” said Wesley, “is one from which a patient goes away with tools, ideas, and something they’ve learned about themselves.”
A professor of music therapy at NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, and the former director of the Baltic Street Clinic for mental health in New York, Peter Jampel said that people with life-long depression can reach their potential through music.
When people are very depressed, they need a variety of treatments, including hospitalization, medication, psychotherapy, and perhaps music therapy, said Jampel, adding that people who like music have the best chance of getting something out it. “If music is in your blood and soul, and you really love it, you are the most likely kind of person to be helped by music therapy and to find pathways to return to mainstream society.”
Music Therapy in Practice
Joanne Loewy is the founder and director of the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at Beth Israel Hospital in New York. She explained that music therapy works differently for different people, but that a specific protocol is in place to assess the needs of each individual patient.
By observing how someone listens to or plays music, a therapist can determine the needed therapy. All instruments are used to understand an individual’s preferred music genre and response to sound. A therapeutic plan may include the playing of an instrument, singing, or song writing to serve as the vehicle to help patients express themselves and ultimately become aware of what they are feeling and why. Treatment length varies for each individual. Some need only one session, while others may be in treatment for years.
An accomplished pianist and music therapist, Wesley went through two years of serious depression. During that period, he wrote “Dark Night of the Soul,” a piece that hit No. 1 on the New Age music charts. Writing and playing was his therapy as he navigated his way through the darkness, and while he wrote, he played the unfolding composition for his patients. Today, he is a full-time musician.
Video: Hitting the Right Note: How Music Therapy Can Help Your Special Needs Child
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