Singing the Praises of Music Therapy

We’ve probably all had the experience of hearing a favorite song and how it immediately brings back thoughts, feelings and memories, both happy and sad. Music really is the universal language, and it has the power to move us deeply. But did you know that music therapy is a well-established treatment now often used to help individuals with mental illness or addiction?

Recently I was fortunate to be able to interview Jennifer Jarred Peyton, a board-certified music therapist and colleague in Lexington, Kentucky with extensive experience in both medical and mental health treatment settings. I asked Jennifer a few questions about music therapy, how it works, and its benefits for those with mental health concerns. Here’s our interview:

DS: What are a few of the primary goals and anticipated benefits of music therapy for those who are being treated for a mental illness or addiction?

JP: Music therapy is evidence based, with research indicating numerous goals and benefits which have been proven effective in the mental health setting. Music therapy helps to relieve a host of problematic issues including pain, substance withdrawal symptoms, anxiety, stress, confusion, agitation, anger, aggression, off-task & inappropriate behaviors, social isolation, depression & grief symptoms, and even symptoms of psychosis. 

Furthermore, music therapy enhances relaxation, communication, self-expression, emotional release, coping skills, self-image & self-esteem, interpersonal relationships & social functioning, group cohesiveness and attendance, motivation, autonomy, decision making, mood, quality of life, cognitive stimulation, and spiritual comfort.

DS: What are some typical activities that would take place in an individual or group music therapy session which is focused on improving mental health? Do you have to have musical ability to benefit from the therapy?

JP: First of all, no, you do NOT have to have musical ability to benefit from music therapy! It does help, though, to have some kind of interest or connection to music. In any individual or group session, one could expect to see any of the following music therapy interventions, although this is not an exhaustive list:

  • Live music engagement: music therapist singing, playing guitar or other instrument and engaging patients to participate at their comfort level
  • Active music making: drumming, singing, playing instruments (shakers, tone chimes, tambourines, etc.)
  • Lyric analysis: looking at and discussing song lyrics and their application to a topic or person/group
  • Songwriting: creating new lyrics to existing melodies or composing new music
  • Counseling/discussion: verbal processing of a variety of topics, guided/shaped by the therapist and prompted by the music/lyrics
  • Guided visualization/Progressive Muscle Relaxation: relaxation techniques paired with music

DS: What are some misconceptions you’ve encountered about music therapy in the community or healthcare setting?

JP: Mostly that music therapy is entertainment, that music therapists are volunteer musicians trolling the halls looking for people to perform for, or that any musician off the street can provide music therapy in the clinical setting. Music therapy is a research and evidence-based healthcare profession that is scientifically proven to effectively achieve therapeutic outcomes. It’s about live music and the personal interaction or therapeutic relationship between the therapist and patient(s). We don’t just press “play” on a CD/mp3 player or find a Pandora or Spotify station for patients and either sit there or walk away. Music therapy uses music to address non-music goals, such as physical, emotional, cognitive, social, and spiritual needs of individuals of all ages. All music therapists have college degrees in music therapy.

DS: What kind of education, training and licensure do music therapists receive?

JP: All music therapists start out in an accredited university music therapy program, whether it’s a Bachelor’s degree or Master’s degree. College courses include basic music classes (theory, history, applied lessons, piano, guitar, voice, percussion, etc.), courses in behavioral sciences (psychology, anatomy and physiology), and the music therapy curriculum. The music therapy curriculum includes theory and practice of music therapy, psychology of music, behavior modification, counseling, music therapy in specific settings, as well as labs and supervised training in clinical settings. Next, students complete an internship, which is typically about 6 months of full time clinical training. The final step is passing the board certification exam from the Certification Board for Music Therapists, which gives the music therapist the credentials: MT-BC (Music Therapist – Board Certified).

DS: Even if someone isn’t participating in music therapy, what are some examples of self-directed musical expression that can be helpful in reducing stress or just to learn how to relax more effectively? 

JP: Sing! Studies show that singing reduces cortisol (the stress hormone) levels, improves our lung function and heart health, and elevates our mood, among other health and wellness benefits. Not a singer? Learning an instrument can improve focus and attention and even improve academics in children. You CAN teach an old dog new tricks. My dad picked up the guitar in his fifties and he rocks out his high school reunion campfires every year! One of my cancer patients tried out a harp I brought to her and after just one session decided to buy one just like it – she was so excited to use the time she was going to be “trapped at home” to acquire a new skill.

Not musically inclined? Use music for relaxation. Find something that relaxes you, and it’s better if it’s something you ONLY listen to when you want to relax (not while you’re driving!). You can train yourself (like Pavlov’s dog) to become sleepy or relaxed when you hear that music if you use it over and over and only under those circumstances. It works especially well if you pair some relaxation techniques like muscle relaxation or imagery with it.

DS: There’s a lot of “music for relaxation” out there. What’s the best music for relaxing or to relieve anxiety?

JP: There is no prescriptive music, meaning there is no one kind of music that functions the same for everyone. What is relaxing for you may not be relaxing for me. I have suffered from migraines since I was a little kid. When I was in high school, I discovered Enya. Without really knowing what I was doing long-term, I decided my Enya CD was going to be my “headache CD” and I only listened to it when I was experiencing a migraine and needed to focus on something other than pain. It became my go-to music for relaxation and pain management. Years later, it was what I listened to when I was in labor with my first son. I still listen to it today when I have a migraine or I need to sleep. And it works for me. Every time.

However, I don’t prefer listening to those “relaxation” albums with ocean sounds because I HATE the beach. It only makes me think of sweating, being overheated, getting sunburned, having sand stuck in places sand doesn’t belong, and all the shark attack stories I heard while I was living on the Florida coast. No, thank you. For others, maybe nature sounds would bring back horrible memories of being lost in the forest during a camping trip or scouting adventure. But there are some who find those sounds freeing, meditative, and most relaxing.

Everyone is different; to each, his own. The point is: only YOU know what is relaxing to YOU. What relaxes my husband? Either no music at all or hard/classic rock and metal. That’s right… Metallica, Rush, and Led Zeppelin take him back to a time and place when he had fewer worries and he immediately feels less stress. So let me assure you that there is no one kind of music that works the same for everyone. Find what works for YOU, and stick with it.

DS: Can you share a favorite story about someone you treated in a mental health setting and how they benefited from music therapy?  

JP: The one that is most memorable to me is probably the most profound effect I think music therapy has ever had in my personal experience in the mental health setting. I was leading a group in an inpatient psychiatric setting. At the beginning of every group, I ask everyone to introduce themselves and tell me what kind of music they like. Brad (name changed for confidentiality) liked 80’s rock, and the other group members liked soul, country, pop, and classic rock.

We started with Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman” and afterward I asked them, “What makes you feel like the most natural you?” Brad’s answer was his wife and kids. Next he requested Guns ‘N Roses, so based on his answer to the previous question, I sang “Sweet Child of Mine.” He loved it and thanked me. The next song was for the country fan who chose Johnny Cash and I did “Ring of Fire” then asked the group what they thought the ring of fire actually is. Brad said he thought it was something you love but can sometimes burn you or get you into trouble. Good insight, right? “So what are some of your rings of fire?” I asked. Brad responded, “drugs, alcohol.”

It was time to do a pop song for our younger patient. The group liked Katy Perry’s “Roar” more than I thought they would. After, I said something along the lines of, “so this song is really about conquering things and becoming a champion and roaring about it. Have any of you conquered any of your rings of fire?” Brad’s answer was, “well I walked into the woods to hang myself but instead I’m here.” {ENTER: need for a therapeutic intervention!}

I’ve always been an Eagles fan. I told the group I was going to sing “Take It to the Limit” and “I challenge you all to see if you can figure out my favorite part of this song (wink wink)”, letting them all know with my facial expression that I would show them exactly which part was my favorite by giving them a wink wink. Here’s my favorite part: “You can spend all your time making money, you can spend all your love making time, if it all fell to pieces tomorrow, would you still be mine?”

After the song, I asked them why they thought that’s my favorite part. Brad said, “because it’s about true love.” I replied, “but not necessarily romantic true love, is it?” Then I went on to explain it’s about support systems: Who’s there for you, how do you spend your time, who do you spend your time with, and who’s there to help you pick up the pieces when your life goes to Hell in a hand basket and when it all falls to pieces…etc. Brad nearly interrupted with, “But what if you’re alone?” I answered, “Then turn the song around. What if someone else is singing it and THEIR life fell to pieces tomorrow, would YOU still be there?” He gave me a “hmm” look and the most minimal head nod.

My group time was up. So I said something like, “I want to leave you all thinking about these few lines from this song and really think about the people in your life who do truly love you and care about you and who are there for you, and those people who you can be there for, to help them pick up their pieces if and when they need it. Before we go, everyone tell me what is one benefit you got from coming to the music therapy group today.”

Brad’s answer was, “Dissecting that last song… it really helped, because that was me. My life went to Hell in a hand basket and my wife is all I got. And I need to be there for her to help her pick up her pieces. You might have untied my rope.” Then he pulled me in, hugged me, and said, “thank you.” For the first time ever in my career, I didn’t mind being frontally hugged by a patient, especially a male one about my same age. It was all I could do to fight back the tears in that moment and simply pull away and say “You’re welcome – that’s why we’re here.” I then went to write my notes as quickly as possible, and found the chaplain and cried my eyes out as I told him what had just happened.

I’ve always known music therapy is effective for many reasons and my groups almost always yield positive, observable, measurable results. But for the first time in my career, I realized the potential for music therapy to actually save a life. I wondered what The Eagles would think if they knew the power of their lyrics combined with a few words of encouragement by a therapist just trying to make a difference in the life of a man at a crossroads. I also felt like I was not the only one at work there. I felt a greater power working through me that gave me no fear or hesitancy to look him directly in the eyes intended to challenge him when I said “Will you still be there?”

Normally as a therapist we ask the patients what THEY think songs mean rather than telling them what WE think the lyrics mean, but as my group time was running out, I made a decision to just throw out that idea about support systems to get them thinking about it and look where it led. It’s a session I will never forget, and I hope it’s a session he will never forget. I will never hear “Take It to the Limit” again in all my life without thinking of this man and hoping that his experience that Monday afternoon on that unit was impactful enough to keep him alive.

DS: How can someone find a music therapist in their local area? What web sites or other resources  do you recommend where more information can be found about music therapy?

JP: The best way to find a music therapist in your local area is to go to the Certification Board for Music Therapists (CBMT) website. Click on “find a board certified music therapist” and enter your state/country under “search location.” There are also lots of private practice music therapists who have Facebook pages, so you can look there, too. Just be sure you see “MT-BC” after their name. Otherwise, you might be getting someone who is incorrectly using the name “music therapist.” For the most information about music therapy, visit the American Music Therapy Association website.

Thanks so much to Jennifer Peyton for her informative and inspiring interview!

Here’s a question: How has music been therapeutic for you when you’ve faced difficult personal challenges? Please leave a comment. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Finally, if you enjoyed this post, please share it with a friend. Thanks!

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