It’s rare to have absolute silence. Music is all around us, it is made up of vibrations of different frequencies, heard in the sounds of nature, the sea, the birds, even the electrical sound of the fridge has a frequency that hums. Within the universe, the musical elements of ‘time’ and ‘rhythm’ are involved in, for example, how the earth and the moon interact with the cycle of the tides, day, night and month. These rhythms and energies may affect our bodies.
In eastern philosophy the mystery of the beginning of all life is understood as starting when a single vibration began, to which there was a response thus creating a resonance. People may either ‘resonate’ in harmony with each other or grate on each other’s nerves. The way people interact with each other is known ‘psychodynamics’. Music has dynamics too, meaning whether it is loud (and scary or emboldening) or soft (and gentle or tremulous) or anything in between.
1. Listening to music – Music is an art form available to almost every human being. Anyone can explore safe and appropriate ways in which music can lift their mood. In public places, such as certain London Underground Stations, classical music is played to enhance a calm mood across a busy, crowded environment where people might otherwise get stressed and then become more aggressive. Healthcare practitioners use music to stimulate a better ambient mood, for example in a secure hospital unit, however the same piece of music will affect individuals in different ways.
2. Music to promote memory and life review – Pre-recorded music has associations to times and places in our lives. If we hear a song from a different time in our life it can bring back all those old feelings. It may be very romantic, sad, happy or funny. Music can make us feel nostalgic and it can therefore make us laugh or cry, feel warm and loving or uncomfortable and full of regret
When we work therapeutically with recorded music it is important to understand the client’s taste and let him choose music that has significant meaning to him, rather than imposing a personal choice that may mean nothing to him, this may otherwise simply be perceived as controlling.
When working with elderly people, if they hear a favourite old song this can bring back happier times and they can then often recall the lyrics which may not have been thought about in ages – then the individual can enjoy sharing their memories. This is important in helping the individual to have a sense of continuity across their lifespan and then to orient them to all that they have done decade by decade.
3. Music and movement to reduce anxiety – Whether music is played on a hospital ward, in a Zumba class, a Pilates class, a religious ceremony, or a military cavalcade with men and horses – music underpins the movements and pace of events through the tempo, rhythms, mood and harmonies.
Running and exercise releases endorphins that are known as ‘happy’ hormones. A play list of suitable tracks can energise and then calm people, for example during physical exercise classes followed by relaxation and meditative music to finish.
I always encourage my clients to develop a varied exercise routine because using our bodies can calm our minds, improve co-ordination and balance, and reduce the symptoms of anxiety. Without physical activity, one’s thoughts and worried feelings may get caught up and these can start to fester inside us. These experiences need an appropriate outlet or otherwise they can make one feel sick.
Often this sort of mental difficulty of anxiously avoiding difficult social events for example, can be misunderstood as simply a digestive or eating problem. This sort of anxiety is unprocessed energy, which can be expended in music therapy because clients move about the room to play drums or tuned percussion or smaller instruments, rather than just sitting in a chair. Moving and being creative can help people to extend themselves and to be more spontaneous in having fun, and then they frequently want to start to understand themselves better.
Music therapy can be used to help people who suffer with Parkinson’s disease. Try singing a gentle tune if you need to help a person with Parkinson’s to walk. The chances are that their shuffling gait may extend towards becoming proper steps if you find a suitable mood, tempo and tune.
Music can also be used in a manipulative and negative way to whip up a fanatical group’s consciousness in a crowd, as if they have lost their individual will to choose. Alternatively, to bond together such as at a football match, when part of the crowd may start to act as one in chanting for their team.
4. Learning a musical instrument to improve the mind – Practising a musical instrument is associated with enhanced verbal ability, the ability to work things out and improved motor coordination. This is because a lot of components and hours of discipline are involved in becoming accomplished on an instrument. The degree of success depends on many factors including the teaching techniques, the levels of parental support for the child, or for an adult learner to have both a witness to his efforts as well as undisturbed practice time. I have taught my instrument, the oboe, all my adult life and I apply some neuroscientific therapeutic principles to this teaching.
Let me tell you the story of Irvine (not his real name). Irvine was eleven and had just scraped into the school where I taught. He had tried the drums at primary school and this had done nothing for him. A child needs to find the right quality of tone in choosing his instrument. Irvine was an unusual and sensitive child, he didn’t seem to have a sense of rhythm, and so I worked to instil a steady pace demonstrating firstly so that he could copy me. As a music therapist I knew how to find his inner rhythm and pace. Even when he had learned only two notes, we could play a duet together as I created harmony around his two long notes. So, he learned to read music while feeling safe and supported, at the same time as blowing and moving his fingers. By the end of his first year, he had moved academically from the bottom of the lowest set of kids in his year into the top set. Individual instrumental lessons gave him the confidence he needed to be better coordinated physically, with improved attention span and greater ability of mental processing.
5. Music making with others for improved sociability – Irvine was an unusual child that had difficulties socialising but then he found that he was needed in the school band, so he started to make new friends and this helped build his self-esteem. He had a new hobby and could play in the local amateur orchestra and go on tours with the youth orchestra; music helped him to learn to bond with his peers in a shared activity and goal. Irvine used to struggle with his academic work but he got into a good university to train in an unrelated subject and instead of being the odd one out, he became the admired superstar when playing his English Horn (Tenor Oboe) in the University Orchestra.
When I was travelling to Canada in 2004 I met a man who said his daughter was learning the oboe because it is almost ‘an automatic ticket to an ivy league university’. I don’t know if that is true but one of my first ever pupils is now a famous scientist and he went on to work at Harvard after Cambridge.
6. Musical improvisation in music therapy for improving and sustaining mental health – The greatest form of improvised music is Jazz, and we can learn a lot about the structure of improvised music from great musicians such as Miles Davis. Music therapy in the UK is a master’s level training and central in this model is jointly creating improvised music that fits the mood, time, and place. The music therapist is a skilled musician but she does not show off, she is there to help the natural creative abilities of any individual start to come through. This is wonderful because all patients can have a go, even if they have never seen a real musical instrument. This experience can be exciting rather than frightening when it is offered sensitively and with respect.
Music therapy is particularly effective for people with schizophrenia. It helps with mental organisation because music alone can cross the bridge between the two hemispheres of the brain, thereby integrating emotional responses and cognitive thinking processing. Once a person has expressed their inner feelings non-verbally through jointly creating music within a trusting therapeutic relationship, then they may be able to more easily recognise what they are feeling and start to find the right words to be able to talk about their problems and thereby receive help from others.
Dr Stella Compton-Dickinson is a London-based Health and Care Profession council registered music therapist, accredited supervisor, professional oboist and lecturer, UK Council for Psychotherapy registered Cognitive Analytic Therapist and Supervisor. She is author of The Clinician’s Guide to Forensic Music Therapy, and has her own private practice and 20 years’ experience in the National Health Service as a Clinician, Head of Arts Therapies and Clinical Research Lead.Her research was awarded the 2016 Ruskin Medal for the most impactful doctoral research.