Sound ideas that can pull all the right strings for patients

A young patient benefiting from music therapy which can be beneficial for a host of health problems.
A young patient benefiting from music therapy which can be beneficial for a host of health problems.
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Music is not just good for the soul; for some conditions it could be just what the doctor ordered. Sheena Hastings reports.

WE all know that listening to your favourite music can be relaxing and even help you to let out pent-up feelings of anger, joy or sadness.

But music therapists say it’s also beneficial in a host of health problems, ranging from autism, dementia, strokes, neuro-degenerative diseases and brain injuries to mental health problems and learning difficulties.

A recently-published Finnish study found depressed patients who had music therapy as well as standard counselling and medication showed a greater reduction in anxiety and depression than those who didn’t.

The patients who played drums or instruments such as the xylophone, described the therapy as “cathartic”, and researchers said it was likely their participation acted as a means of releasing emotional pressures.

Professor Christian Gold, who led the research, says: “Music therapy has specific qualities that allow people to express themselves and interact in a non-verbal way, even in situations when they can’t find the words to describe their inner experiences.”

In March this year, researchers at Japan’s Osaka University found music could lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as blood pressure. Other studies have suggested it can improve mobility after a stroke, through a form of therapy called Rhythmic Auditory Stimulation, where the rhythmic element of music can help victims to re-establish walking and speech patterns. Now available on the NHS, music therapy can take many forms. A person may play their choice of musical instrument, have music played to them, or even write songs.

The technique involved will change depending on the person and their needs, says music therapist Tina Warnock of the British Association for Music Therapy, which replaces the two organisations that previously represented practitioners, musicians and others involved in providing the therapy. Autistic children looking for ways to express themselves may enjoy improvising music, for example, while withdrawn patients may find music being played to them aids their ability to communicate. It can also be used in palliative care to soothe patients and their families and help them to express their feelings. It isn’t about learning to play instruments, but benefiting from the experience of the sound,” says Warnock. “If they want to sit and play music, then it’s our job to support them. We help them get in touch with their feelings and be creative.”

Warnock says many autistic children use music as their voice and will sometimes speak more afterwards. Music therapist Angela Harrison, who chairs the new national body, has worked with learning impaired children and adults and people with emotional problems for 19 years. She and colleagues provide sessions in schools through North Yorkshire Music Therapy Centre in Malton.

“For people who can’t express themselves in traditional ways, music can be their only outlet for communicating what’s inside them,” says Harrison, a former viola player with the Hallé Orchestra. “They may not have words or the body language the rest of us take for granted, but working with music helps them by improving listening and concentration skills, and lets them process and express feelings.

“It can help a child who is quite severely disabled to shine, even in a setting where they are with more physically or cognitively able children.”

Music therapy researcher Julian O’Kelly, of the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in London, says music therapy is used at the hospital to help people whose brains have been affected by serious accidents, oxygen starvation and strokes.

“Damage can affect speech, motor output and behaviour, and music can play a role in all those areas,” he says, explaining that studies show listening to music interacts with areas of the brain dealing with emotions, higher cognitive reasoning and long-term memory. “Parts of the brain that weren’t really doing much can be reconfigured. If it’s sensitively used, it can exercise all these parts of the brain.”

O’Kelly is running a three-year research project into the effect of music therapy on patients in vegetative states after profound head injuries or strokes. “Anecdotal evidence suggests music may reach the parts other stimuli don’t. It would be wonderful if there were some scientific proof of that.” If research proves music has an effect on arousing patients, he says, it could be used to diagnose more accurately patients who have the potential for more awareness.”