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Music Therapy Might Not Be a Cure For Illness But Can Bring Emotional Acceptance: Expert Speaks

Picture of a physically injured child playing a musical instrument | Picture Courtesy: Clinical Music Therapy

While the West is more proactive in making music therapy an integral intervention in the healing process, India is still opening its eye to it, says therapist Kamal Singh

Written by Kashish Sharma |Published : September 15, 2022 4:14 PM IST

The beep of ventilators, the hiss of oxygen, and the commotion of healthcare workers are some sounds that often strike the ears of an ill premature baby or a terminally sick person, on a hospital bed. While it is impossible to mute these sounds coming from life-assisting machines, some studies have shown that consciously chosen music can improve the emotional well-being of these people. While the western world has been proactive in taking music therapy as an essential intervention in the overall healing process of an individual, in India the concept is yet to be explored and applied.

Researchers across the globe have been exploring how music therapy can improve health conditions among patients suffering from Depression, Dementia, and Parkinson's disease and is effective even in cases of premature births.

Kamal Singh: Our Expert in the room

Intending to develop a deep understanding of music therapy as a healing intervention, Healthsite spoke to a Bengaluru-based clinical music therapist Kamal Singh who has found a purpose in his love for music. The therapist has vast experience in dealing with patients suffering from physical and psychological trauma, people suffering from age-affected disorders like Parkinson's and Dementia, and also terminal illnesses like cancer.

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Singh finds his purpose in recognizing the subconscious beliefs that affect the physical, mental and emotional well-being of a person and helping them nurture new experiences using the power of music. In a short dialogue, he takes us through a description of a typical music healing process.

Would refrain from calling music 'medicine'

Responding to whether he would consider music as medicine, Singh said that the effect of music on people cannot be generalized. For some people, he said, music could mean freedom, for others it could be healing. He found it safe to call it an effective medium through which one could explore emotions and experiences.

A quick means to get access to one's subconscious

Singh explains that an individual's deep emotions and experiences are rooted in the subconscious mind. The anxiety caused by these unresolved emotions, he said, cannot be reduced, managed or controlled by any amount of rational thought. However, following facilitation, he said, music can give access to a space where one can relive those emotions and experiences. " It might allow you to connect with your experiences of life as a five-year-old," Singh said that sometimes the patients are able to revisit old experiences or have abstract dreamlike situations.

Creating new memory through music

According to Singh, music therapy can also help one create new experiences. Taking an instance of a person who might find the beep of a ventilator triggering as it may remind him or her of their ailing grandmother, Singh said that for such a person, the therapy process could be to try and recreate a new experience through music. "We might gently introduce you to the beep of a ventilator through a lot of facilitation and support, and will gradually try to bring you out from the space of fear (associated with the beep) and then try to create a more aware and healthier experience around it like one that reminds you of the love you have for your grandmother."

Cognitive therapy means still some conscious work to do

Comparing music therapy with cognitive behavioural therapy, Singh said that while the former can give access to a space where one can explore emotions, the latter still requires some conscious work. While the approach remains the same for both kinds of interventions, music therapy can be much easier for patients who are too anxious to talk or are suffering from cognition-affected disorders like Alzheimer's. He said that the therapy relies purely on experiences. Cognition and language are not a barrier during the session.

Facilitation is a must

Singh spoke about a patient whose experience of the same music differed when introduced with and without facilitation. "In the morning when he visited me, following facilitation, he responded positively to the music I had made him hear. The same music at night without my facilitation had made him feel uneasy." Hence, in his words, facilitation is key before introducing any kind of music to the patient.

Might not cure cancer but will bring about an emotional acceptance

Singh spoke about people suffering from a terminal illness like cancer and how they respond to music therapy. He explained that cancer patients could be going through a lot of pain and fear. The fact that life is coming to an end for them could be overwhelming and not very easy to accept. While the therapy might or might not improve their physical state, he said, it will bring them to a place where they would emotionally accept reality.

A typical day at my clinic

Singh described a usual day at his clinic where sometimes he asks the patients to write a song or read lyrics of their choice. Among instruments, Singh engages patients with guitars, drums, and other percussions. He explained how he closely observes and follows along as his patients react to certain music or choose some lyrical lines over others. He said every choice they make opens a realm of healthy discussion. "Sometimes creating a note of our own can also be very empowering." Hence, creativity becomes an integral aspect of Singh's clinical session. He further explains that though the session might seem like a fun activity at heart it is a therapeutic process. Singh describes how he likes to keep it unstructured and unpredictable most of the time.

A dying man smiles

Singh then jumped to the mushy part of these sessions where once a dying man smiled. He described a patient diagnosed with a terminal sickness who died in hours following a session with him. "I remember him playing the drum, he didn't even recognize his children. He played the drum with a burning passion. While playing, he looked up, we had quick eye contact and then he smiled at me. A few hours after this, he passed away. This has been one of the most emotional experiences of my career."

Music makes it easy to communicate

Singh narrated a scene of how a father once felt short of words to express his feelings to his ailing daughter. He described how he had asked the two to play the harmonium as a pair, asking them to take turns to play and push the bellows. Singh then made us picture a cushy image of a daughter lying on her father's lap. "This is what happened an hour after the session. Music makes it easier to say what wasn't easy to say earlier."

Hospitals could make use of some music

In his last word, Singh spoke about countries like Australia that have made music therapy an integral part of healing. He described how in many hospitals one can see guitarists standing just outside the MRI machine, helping patients to bring down their anxiety about being examined in a narrow tunnel. Singh also said that whoever visits a hospital, whether patients, caregivers or caretakers, it is a place where emotions ought to get heightened. For him, it would be a great sight to see such an initiative rolling out in India.

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