Music Therapy

Music Therapy

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on September 09, 2002
From the WebMD Archives

Music can transport us back in time ... to summers at the beach, to high school football games, to a first kiss. A good play or a painting can take us somewhere else, too. And it seems these art forms can take some patients away from their pain.

Music is a powerful tool that can help patients relax deeply, Hanser says.

In clinical settings, the use of music is quite diverse, says Boston music therapist Suzanne Hanser, EdD. For example, music can be used as an "auditory focal point" to help moms-to-be concentrate on their breathing during labor and delivery, much in the way that the Lamaze technique uses a visual focal point.

Hospitals across the country are relying increasingly on music therapists to work with patients -- from expectant mothers to terminal cancer patients. Hanser visits oncology patients at the Zakim Center for Integrated Therapies at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Bringing her 12-string lyre, alto recorder, and keyboard to a patient's bedside, Hanser begins playing and watches for which melodies and which instruments have an effect on the patient.

Many of the patients she sees are too ill even to speak. But Hanser, chair of the department of music therapy at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, can tell when the music is working. The best feedback she can get? "To see the patient simply fall asleep."

"For patients who are deeply agitated or in severe pain, music provides a tremendous distraction," Hanser says. "It's a powerful tool that can put them in a different frame of mind and help them relax deeply."

Play It Again, Doc

Hanser has also published two studies showing that music therapy is a valuable tool in easing the emotional difficulties of elderly people.

Music therapy is one of the most frequently studied of the arts therapies, and research has been conducted on its effect on children, including on premature infants; on preoperative patients; and on brain-injured individuals, to name just a few groups.

"Music helps people who are ill take their mind off hospital rituals," says Audree O'Connell, associate professor of music therapy at the Conservatory of Music at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. "When they're listening to music, they can be 'somewhere else.' It takes their mind off the procedures and tests they have to undergo," she says.

Other Healing Arts

Art therapy began in the 1940s and '50s in the U.S. and England, and has long been used as an effective treatment for people with developmental, medical, educational, social, or psychological difficulties. Patients may be asked to create images of their dreams or to work out their feelings about certain situations (like a loved one's death).

Drama therapy, newer than either art or music therapy (some say the use of music as a healing technique can be traced to the 18th century), is also being used more in clinical settings. Don Laffoon, a registered drama therapist and chair of the National Coalition of Arts Therapies Association, immediate past president of the National Association for Drama Therapy, and director of Stop-Gap, a drama therapy group, uses drama therapy as a prevention and intervention tool.

His company takes approximately 20 plays on tour throughout Southern California, helping people learn about and deal with such subjects as HIV/AIDS, date rape, and alcoholism.

"These are tough subjects to communicate," he says. Laffoon and his troupe have performed in hospitals for children with cancer, in shelters for battered women and children, in adult day care centers, and in alcohol and drug dependency programs.

Nothing is scripted in Laffoon's work. "We do a lot of role playing and role reversal," he says. Most of the clients he sees tend to feel powerless over their lives. "We try to empower them. Kids get to act as doctors or nurses, for example, while the therapists act as the kids."

"We never put a victim in a victim's role," he adds. "We want them to have a respite. And we also want them to feel what it's like to have some power."

When people have the opportunity to act in another role, they are often able to see their situation in a new light. "When they themselves are playing the teacher, they hear themselves saying what they may tune out when it comes from someone else," says Laffoon.

Unlike music therapy, not much research has been done in the area of drama therapy and Laffoon agrees that more studies and more "real data" are needed. Still, he says, "I've seen amazing things happen."

Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD, Sept. 9, 2002.

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