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How music therapy can help heal the brain

How music therapy can help heal the brain

Music can restore some of the cognitive functions, sensory and motor functions of the brain after a traumatic injury.

Written by Sandhya Raghavan |Updated : June 21, 2018 12:33 PM IST

Music does more than just put us in a good mood. It's a wonder drug that sets a lot of things right: It energises your mind, eases stress, evokes emotions and soothes your soul. Everyone has their own personal equation with music, their own cache of songs that they fall back on in good times and the bad. And there's no denying the effect music has on us; it touches us and changes us in profound ways.

In the last couple of decades, researchers have been trying to scientifically validate what we already felt about music: whether it can really heal us from within. There is a burgeoning body of evidence supporting the use of music as a means of treatment for problems such as chronic pain, memory loss, insomnia and more recently, brain injuries.

In the recent years, there have been multiple investigations into the impact of music on the brain and how music as a highly structured auditory language can help the organ stay in ship shape. To get a clearer picture, The Health Site reached out to Bernice Chu, a music therapist practising at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability, London, United Kingdom, who has been working with adults diagnosed with brain injury.

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What is music therapy?

Let's start by getting the basics out of the way. A certified music therapist is ideally someone with a degree in music who gets MT-BC (Music Therapist Board Certified) credential to start clinical practice. The therapists draw upon their extensive knowledge of music and its principles to help patients overcome their impaired cognitive, motor and sensory functions.

How does music impact the brain and mind?

According to Bernice, music is processed in more than one part of the brain. In healthy individuals, music encourages us to move, relax, feel emotions and use our voice. This helps in activating different areas of the brain, keeping it healthy. She adds, "An interesting dialogue was published discussing the benefits and challenges between music therapy and neuroscience." The dialogue featured in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience discusses how neuroscience and music therapy can together promise many benefits, given the different knowledge bases, experiences and skills that can be provided by both disciplines.

(Read: Is being a musician good for your brain?)

What does music therapy session involve?

Before the intervention, the therapist tries to understand the personal interests and hobbies of the patient. The sessions are then tailor-made to suit the goals of the patient. Bernice says that these goals are focused on making the person more independent and developing compensatory strategies for any ability which has become difficult for the patient to perform due to the injury.

"If the goal in therapy is to regain movement in a patient's arm, for example, the music therapist may involve a variety of music instruments to target a specific movement. To contrast this, if the goal in therapy is to practice speech and word articulation, the music therapist will use songs and vocal exercises to target this. Music therapists are trained to manipulate musical elements to help patients achieve a wide variety of physical, communication, cognitive and emotional goals," she adds.

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How long does a session last?

The duration of the session depends entirely on the extent of their disability.

"The patients we work with at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability are often significantly cognitively and physically impaired as a result of their brain injury; therefore, any therapy will use a lot of energy and cause them to fatigue quickly," says Bernice. "Therapy sessions can last anywhere between 10 and 45 minutes. This is adapted to each person's ability."

When it comes to therapy, what kind of music is best suited for healing?

The right therapy is a relative concept because it differs according to the medical requirements of the person. "What is considered effective is different for everyone -it really depends on what the patient's goal is. Clinical research completed at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability shows familiar music is more effective in music therapy with individuals who are in a prolonged disorder of consciousness.

"With other patients who may be more aware of their environment, it is also useful to create novel melodies to help someone achieve their rehabilitation goal, e.g. melodic intonation therapy or rhythmic auditory stimulation."

What is the role of music in recovering lost speech?

One of the outcomes of brain injury is the loss of speech. This causes communication difficulties brought on by damage caused to the nervous system. Patients often suffer from reduced movement of the lips, the tongue and the soft palate; reduced control over airflow from the lungs; and slurred speech.

"The team of music therapists at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability are all trained in neurologic music therapy techniques and work alongside speech and language therapists daily," says Bernice. She also reveals that the interventions focus on ensuring that the strengths of the patient are utilised. "Music is processed in many parts of the brain; that is why sometimes when speech centres of the brain are damaged, it is possible to recover some aspects of speech from other areas of the brain. The potential for recovery depends on where in the brain and what type of injury someone has had."

How can music therapy help those with anxiety?

There is little doubt whether music can alter our mood or not. Imagine listening to a fast-paced death metal track when you are anxious; it's bound to make you more agitated. Conversely, tuning into a soothing Carnatic raaga can instantly quieten the mind. Those who suffer from anxiety also confess to turning towards music for some instant relief.

Since anxiety is a multi-faceted problem, Bernice reveals that therapeutical interventions for dealing with anxiety should also be multifaceted. "Perceived anxiety may be experienced mildly daily: like arriving to work on time, paying bills. It can also be experienced in more extreme forms, like the anxiety before an intensive medical procedure."

"For this reason, it is difficult to generalise how music therapy may help. Several research studies have shown the beneficial effect of music on reducing anxiety with patients with cancer, undergoing medical procedures and within hospital settings. Listening and engaging in music releases endorphins, such as dopamine, which contribute to feelings of pleasure which may counteract feelings of anxiety," she says.

All said and done; it is important to remember that the quality and outcome of your music therapy depends on the expertise of your therapist. "Music therapists work in a wide variety of settings and specialisms will differ," says Bernice. So it is necessary to find the one who fits your goals and requirements.

Also read: Expert tips to keep your brain healthy -- Based on a mental wellness project undertaken by Bolt Burdon Kemp, one of UK's leading firms for serious cases of negligence and compensation.

Image source: Shutterstock

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