Healing Music: An Interview with Stanley Jordan

In a career that took flight in 1985 with commercial and critical acclaim, guitar virtuoso Stanley Jordan has consistently displayed a chameleonic musical persona of openness, imagination, versatility, respect, and maverick daring. Be it bold reinventions of classical masterpieces, soulful explorations through pop-rock hits, or blazing straight-ahead jazz forays and ultramodern improvisational works — solo or with a group — Jordan can always be counted on to take listeners on breathless journeys into the unexpected.

Born in Chicago, Jordan grew up in California, where he began his music career at age 6, studying piano, then shifted his focus to guitar at age 11. He received a B.A. in digital music composition from Princeton University in 1981, studying under computer-music composers Paul Lansky and Milton Babbitt. While at Princeton, he played with jazz greats Benny Carter and Dizzy Gillespie and upon graduation struck out on a career which has spanned solo and multiple collaborations.

Jordan is known for his unique style of guitar playing, which he calls the “touch technique.” It involves tapping the strings with both hands independently on the guitar neck so as to play separate parts in a pianistic manner. According to Jordan, “It brings some of the orchestral possibilities of the piano, while retaining the expressive nature of the guitar.”

But that’s not all Jordan is known for. These days, when he is not on the road touring here and abroad, solo, or with groups, he is pursuing a master’s degree in music therapy from Arizona State University. As a member and spokesperson for the American Music Therapy Association, he writes on his website that he is very excited to be promoting the healing powers of music brought to the public by music therapists in “important places, such as hospitals, hospice centers, youth counseling centers, and correctional facilities.” He cites the work of three music therapists in particular: Dr. Johann Lowey, who practices music therapy in the pediatric ward at Beth Israel Hospital in New York; Barbara Dunn, who works with AIDS and cancer patients at the Bailey Bushay House in Seattle, using music to bolster self-worth and the immune system; and Barbara Crowe, who is doing cutting-edge research at ASU on chaos theory and the subtle energy of chi, with respect to using sound vibrations to heal physical organs and to reprogram a person’s overall energy field so that their healing can take place naturally and holistically at all levels.

What follows is an interview with Jordan based on a paper he wrote on neurolinguistic programming (NLP), an approach to communication, personal development, and psychotherapy created in the 1970s.

Brain World: How did you become interested in music therapy?

Stanley Jordan: Before I had ever heard of the term, I was already moving in that direction. Once, as a teenager, I recovered almost completely from the flu in one day while playing music with another student. The feeling of the music and the feeling of the healing were one and the same. Later, as an undergrad at Princeton, I got a hold of a book of Scientific American reprints on the brain. I could not put that book down! Although it had no articles on music, it gave me some insights into what happens in the brain while listening to music, and I developed a lifelong interest in finding a way to use music to heal the brain and improve its functions.

BW: You describe the brain as having five channels corresponding to five sensory modalities. The work in therapy is to balance and integrate these modalities. How is this done?

SJ: The auditory nerve leads to every major region of the brain. The optic nerve does not do this. Musical activity involves the entire brain because it includes motor coordination, visual-spatial perception, linguistic processing of lyrics, transpersonal experiences and more. In this way, music itself is inherently integral. Music healing refers to the health-enhancing effects of the music itself. Music therapy builds on music healing but adds the element of the therapeutic relationship and the guidance of a trained music therapist. So the integration can go well beyond sensory modalities and extend to the entire human — physical, mental, emotional, psychosocial, and spiritual.

BW: Music impacts a variety of experience — environment, behavior, capability, beliefs, identity, and spirit, many times simultaneously. How does this apply to music therapy?

SJ: The main point that people need to understand is that the power of music goes beyond the music itself. It’s how the music is used in context that distinguishes music therapy. For example, most people would probably not consider death metal to be a therapeutic form. However, it can be a useful therapeutic tool if it can be used as a bridge to build trust and communication with a child who likes that music. The point is that music reaches us on every level, including our sense of identity and our spiritual life. It’s that holistic integration of every aspect that best explains the healing power of music.

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