Notes of Healing: The Power of Music as Therapy

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When Grace was born 27 weeks into her mom’s pregnancy, a harpist was conducting research in her Boston neonate intensive care unit. Her mom, Mary Liz Van Dyck, says that the delicate sounds of the harp were a soothing melody amid the clinical noise of constant beeping, alarms, and the bustle of hospital staff.

When she was 15, Grace was in intense pain after undergoing an operation for a rare form of spinal cancer. Nothing seemed to be working. Then a music therapist put her fingers on a harp, and Grace felt, for the first time in three years, the pain leave her body. “Music allows patients the chance to express themselves,” she says, “we’re usually very tense and music allows us to let our guard down. Patients are being told by doctors and nurses what to do at all times.” And as she wrote in a song: “All these voices talking to me, And my own voice not coming through.”

The music not only allowed a physical release from pain, but also gave the gift of emotional validation. Trauma survivors and those with traumatic brain injuries appear to have a similar response — music gives another way of voicing that which individuals may otherwise find difficult articulating.

Music and voice are powerfully intertwined. Catherine Parker who has a master’s degree in music therapy, from Immaculata University in Pennsylvania, went into the field because her father suffered a traumatic brain injury when he got hit by a car back in 1992. Parker recalls: “He had astasia, and one of the things that he would do constantly was sing. I saw how music helped him regain his speech, he has recovered incredibly and is now pursuing his educational doctorate.” She is also a co-director of the Melmark Joybells, a handbell choir consisting mainly of adults with Down syndrome who made their national debut on “The Today Show.” As a group, they have found that singing helps improve speech challenges.

The bells are not only symbols of joy and expression for Parker’s group, but also for the cancer patients at Massachusetts General Hospital. Grace has rung the bell twice at the end of radiation treatments. It’s a hospital tradition at the end of treatment, symbolizing personal rejoicing and a sound of hope for others still undergoing the treatment.

But it is the harp that speaks most to Grace. She and her music therapist, Lorrie Kubicek of Next Set, don’t play set tunes during their sessions together. They sit across from each other and if Grace is feeling happy they play tunes in major keys. If she is feeling down, the pitch dips to minors. Is there also a hidden memory going back to her infancy for why the harp soothes her distress? No one knows but there is plenty of research to show that the elegant instrument has a profound healing effect.

The National Institutes of Health reported that combining harp music with kangaroo care (premature babies kept in a pouch close to their mother) was more beneficial than kangaroo care alone in reducing maternal anxiety, but had little impact on the infants. However, another study showed that live harp music slowed heart rates and induced deep sleep in infants, and in a hospital setting, it improved medical care given by nurses and doctors.

Harp music, especially when played live, has also been found to reduce pain and anxiety in those recovering from cardiac, vascular, and thoracic surgeries, as well as those in hospices, who have reported deeper and more peaceful sleep. And as Mary Liz Van Dyck, Grace’s mom, wryly notes, it’s a cheaper treatment than pharmacology.

So why isn’t harp (or any kind of) music used more often than drugs or invasive procedures? For a start, the top 500 pharmaceutical companies are expected to spend $140 billion on research and development this year, with the United States swallowing 31 percent of all the drugs consumed in the world, according to market analysts. For music therapists, it’s a bit harder to compete. Money talks, music soothes, but more hospitals and physicians are exploring the harmony linking the two.

Music triggers the release of pleasurable dopamine in the dorsal and ventral striatum of the brain. The pupils in our eyes dilate. Our pulse and blood pressure rise. The electrical conductance of our skin is lowered. The cerebellum, a brain region associated with bodily movement, activates. Blood is redirected to your leg muscles and so you find yourself tapping your feet, drumming your fingers, or moving your head. Those with Alzheimer’s disease who have difficulty walking suddenly stand and glide when waltz music is played.

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