Thursday, July 9, 2009

Music Therapy


There is a lot of research being done recently looking into the therapeutic benefits of music. Much of this research has examined pain and anxiety symptoms but less has been done in the specific context of mental illness(though many registered music therapists are out there).

A review done last year showed that while music therapy was well tolerated in depressed patients, had low drop-out rates, and improved symptoms, that the studies under review were of low methodological quality and few in number.

A recent study demonstrated improvements in people suffering from depression or psychosis with a dose related effect of music therapy sessions.

Another study showed an improvement in quality of life of people suffering from a mental illness, though there was no significant improvement in symptoms.

Evidence for the reduction of anxiety in children undergoing acupuncture who listen to their favourite song was found. A limitation of this study, and of interest to futures studies of the effects of music on mood, is there was no control for the type of song chosen by the child.

Another study (with subjects undergoing brain surgery) that shows patient chosen music can enhance quality of life and decrease anxiety when suffering from pain.

Future research in the area of the anxiolytic effects of music therapy with meal-times for eating disorders would be very interesting.

Choice of music can be an area of conflict in therapy. Obviously, what both patient and therapist want is music that will be comforting and supportive. Yet, the two parties may disagree on exactly what music this entails. Music is a very personal accessory, one as closely attributed to identity as hair. The therapist alone can not prescribe a particular music and expect it have results based on the content of the piece alone. As well, the patient may need to examine their choices in music for any negative influences resulting from their disorder (often a person who is depressed will seek comfort in depressing songs where it would be more advantageous to use happier songs to relieve discomfort).

For anyone who plays music, at any level, sharing music with your therapist can be quite beneficial as the therapeutic alliance and self-confidence may be strengthened. As well, practicing mindfulness techniques while practicing your instrument (or listening to your favourite music) can further improve symptoms. Examining favourite recordings in session can also be an insightful therapeutic exercise.

I do believe in encouraging the playing of music, where possible, as opposed to actively or passively listening to a recording. Playing an instrument is a full body experience, not just in how the player affects the instrument, but in how the instrument physically responds (tension, vibrations, texture…). The addition of the process of reading music, translating one symbolic language into another, may also help with cognitive deficits.

Furthermore, playing music with a group has the additional benefits of increasing interpersonal interactions in a healthy, supportive, and engaging environment. There are many groups which do not require an audition or any previous experience. Choirs (church or otherwise), amateur orchestras, karaoke, playing with friends, drum circles, and Rock Band (seriously) are just some ideas.

And if you’re looking to learn to play and are wondering which instrument is the best choice, the answer is cello. Anyone who says otherwise is obviously not a cello player. There is one lady in Vancouver who specialises in both cello playing and music therapy (I know nothing of her reputation).


The Music Therapy Association of BC has some interesting links.

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