Music as the Healer: The Power of Music in Recovery

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Music as the Healer: The Power of Music in Recovery

It all began with a lullaby, a simple tune with a few well-placed notes and a message of love. “I would like to sing to you today,” I said to my patients during music therapy. “Please get comfortable, close your eyes, and listen.”

As I looked around the room, I counted sixteen amazing, articulate, talented, spiritual women all struggling with eating disorders. I couldn’t help but feel my heart open as I thought about how each of them had touched my life. I thought, “Their only ‘flaw’ is that they neglect to see their own worth.”

This was my lullaby:

How could anyone ever tell you
You are anything less than beautiful?
How could anyone ever tell you
You are less than whole?
How could anyone fail to notice
That your loving is a miracle
How deeply you’ve connected to my soul?

When I finished, the room was silent with the exception of sniffles and sobbing. Statements such as, “I was never sung to as a child,” and, “The song gave me so much comfort and peace,” were spoken. One woman said that she felt like she was, “Not alone for the first time in years.” Another said, “I had no idea music could touch my heart and soul this deeply and could fill a void that has been empty for so long.”

What my patients knew was that the lullaby was simple, familiar, and evoked a range of emotions. What I know is that lullabies are generally written in ¾ time, which imitates a rocking motion, simulating the action of a mother rocking her infant. So a lullaby can serve as a nurturer—providing comfort and support.

Active Listening

When listened to, music takes on a life of its own. It becomes the friend, the comforter, the ally, the healer, the spokesman, the messenger, and the constant companion. Music understands, motivates, and energizes. But do we really hear it? We are constantly surrounded by songs—at the mall, in elevators, at the dentist’s office, in our cars, at sporting events. Yet we are so conditioned to music as a background noise that we often deprive ourselves of experiencing music’s true power and its surprising ability to heal us.

I focus on active music listening with my eating disorder patients. When we are actively listening to music, we are not doing anything else. We concentrate on the lyrics, the melody, the rhythm, and especially on how our bodies and minds react and respond. Many individuals comment that they are surprised when they become emotional while listening to an unfamiliar song. On the other hand, after actively listening to a familiar tune, people sometimes discover that a song they thought they enjoyed, in truth, does not evoke as much of a response as they expected.

Music and Mood

Music has been shown to have a great influence on altering emotions if used appropriately. Known as the isometric principle, one of the most effective methods of using music to adjust emotion is to first match the mood with music and then to gradually change the music to whatever mood is desired.2 We must, therefore, be attuned to what we’re feeling when we begin to listen.

If we are interested in being able to study and concentrate or to use music to help us sleep, monophonic music works wonders. Monophonic music contains one melodic line with no harmony, such as a Gregorian Chant. Monophonic music actually enters our subconscious and contains it, as a proverbial subconscious “babysitter.” With our subconscious mind preoccupied, we are better able to focus on whatever task is at hand.

Interestingly, many of the so-called “music for relaxation” songs arepolyphonic music. Great for increasing stimulation in our subconscious, these songs are not so great at actually helping us to calm down. Polyphonic music contains multiple instruments, or voices and harmonies, such as the Hallelujah Chorus in Handel’s Messiah or Pachelbel’s Canon in D. Polyphonic music actually interjects imagery into our subconscious, creating more stimuli and more activity. Polyphonic music is excellent when we want to be more creative and has been called a gateway into our subconscious. Some music therapists are trained in using specific classical polyphonic music.3

Music and Therapy

Music has proven to have long-term benefits in the realm of therapy. Studies have shown that it has an effect on brain chemicals or neurotransmitters including melatonin, norepinephrine, and epinephrine, which work in combination to influence mental state, regulate mood, improve sleep, and reduce aggression and depression.4 Blood analysis indicates a significant increase in melatonin levels after patients participate in music therapy sessions. This increase continues even after music therapy has been discontinued for six weeks. Norepinephrine and epinephrine levels also increase significantly after music therapy sessions.

Motivating, energizing, and soothing, music heals. It nurtures. It makes us feel good. And it all begins with just a few well-placed notes. It begins with a lullaby.

References

  1. How Could Anyone” written by Libby Roderick, 1988. www.libbyroderick.com.
  2. Altschuler, I. (1948). A psychiatrist’s experience with music as a therapeutic agent.In: Schullian D and Schoen M, Music and Medicine. NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1948: 250-275.
  3. Retrieved May, 2007 from www.bonnyfoundation.org.
  4. Kumar, (1999). Alternative Therapies, 5:49-57. Retrieved May, 2007 fromwww.calregistry.com/dyk/music.htm.

By Lynette Taylor, MT-BC with Jenni Schaefer, BS
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Summer 2007 Volume 5, Number 3
©2007 Gürze Books

About the Author

Lynette Taylor, MT-BC, is a board-certified music therapist at Center for Change in Orem, Utah. Visit www.centerforchange.com. Jenni Schaefer, BS, is a singer/songwriter, speaker, and author of Life Without Ed. Visit www.jennischaefer.com.

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