On January 8th, 2011 a crowd was gathered at a grocery store in Arizona to hear Congresswoman Gabby Giffords speak. The scene of this simple meet and greet became headline news around the country later that day for the worst possible reasons—nineteen people were shot and six killed by a gunman attempting to assassinate Giffords. It was a miracle Giffords was not instantly killed by the bullet that lodged itself in the back of her head, but even after undergoing and surviving emergency surgery, the doctors knew her battle towards a full recovery was going to be a long struggle.
Giffords’s treatment included various therapies that any person recovering from a head injury undergoes: speech, physical, occupational. She also benefited from a special form of therapy that is less well known—music therapy. As seen in an amazing and inspiring ABC News story, music therapy is one of the incredible ways patients of all kinds can recover from life-altering diagnoses.
Music therapy is not a new concept. As far back as ancient Egypt and Greece, cultures have embraced the powers of music to heal the mind. The earliest reference to music therapy as a way of treating diseases appeared in a 1789 magazine article, and from that time on, the field has expanded exponentially. Today, there are thousands of music therapists who are trained in the science behind music’s healing capabilities.
How Music Affects the Brain
Music therapy is rooted in human biology because of our innate connection to rhythm. Every day, the thumping of our heart, the pattern of our breath, and the beat of our footsteps are far more naturally rhythmic than any music transmitted out the radio.
Modern music therapy works not just because of our biological rhythm. Scientists have narrowed in on research arguing the same brain areas that process music also process other functions. This is part of the reason music therapy works for people who suffer from TBIs, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other illnesses impacting memory loss. Research also shows that practicing and learning music changes the brain, which is why many music therapy treatments involve playing instruments.
How Music Heals
Music therapy treatments differ completely from person to person. The magic behind the science of music therapy in each case is very different because we’re all touched by different kinds of interactions with music. Yet, part of the reason treatments vary so widely is because, despite the advances in science, there are still a lot of questions on how exactly music has the power to provide therapy. With most TBIs, as seen in the video of Gabby Giffords, music therapy involves singing and/or playing an instrument to rebuild cognitive functions that may have been damaged. For Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, music performance is sometimes used, but so is listening to favorite songs. And, just as every individualized music therapy plan is reliant on individual needs, so are the genres of music for treatment. Even without complicated treatments, music can intuitively provide relief. Creating a playlist of favorite songs or calming sounds helps reduce anxiety and depression.
Unfortunately, music therapy alone cannot fully cure any disease. However, music can provide relief for almost any condition. Through the wonders of science and the magic of creativity, music therapists have helped thousands of patients overcome difficult obstacles, and make great strides towards recovery. For more information on music therapy or to find a licensed local music therapist who can help you or a loved one, check out the American Music Therapy Association’s website.
Sources and Additional Information:
Maria Konnikova, How Music Makes Us Feel Better, The New Yorker, September 2013
Suzanne DeChillo, Relaxing, Touching the Memory, Music Helps the Final Transition, The New York Times, July 2011
Katie Charles, Daily Checkup: Music therapy shows dramatic results; patients with range of different diseases taking note, New York Daily News, December 2015