Music Therapy: The Healing Power of Song

HEALING POWER OF MUSICHello darkness, my old friend. Like a bridge over troubled water. That’s me and Julio down by the schoolyard.

Music takes us back to a formative time, to a younger potentate version of ourselves. Music reminds us of who we were, who we are, and who we still want to be. Music captures a zeitgeist, a moment-in-time, and in an instant we are transported – mind, body and soul – to that day on the beach, that night at the prom, or that afternoon cruising in the car, new license in hand, breeze in our hair and the radio blaring.

Ain’t no mountain high enough…to keep me from getting to you.

Music keeps us young. I was a teenager, hanging out in my bedroom, listing to the Beach Boys. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” was on the record player. It was a steamy summer day. The windows were open. I could see my next-door neighbor, the very cool Jimmy Russo, hair slicked back, walking down the street. Strange as it sounds in these days of anything goes, but I still blush when I remember hearing the song’s lyrics for the first time.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older
Then we wouldn’t have to wait so long
And wouldn’t it be nice to live together
In the kind of world where we belong
You know its gonna make it that much better
When we can say goodnight and s-l-e-e-p together
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could wake up
In the morning when the day is new
And after having spent the day together
Hold each other close the whole night through…

What scandalous lyrics, I thought, and how had the writer gotten into my head to know what I was thinking while I watched Jimmy Russo walk past my window that day? The Beach Boys spoke for me in ways I dared not. I felt the song’s power spread to every corner of my being, and when I hear it today, I still feel that rush of young love. That’s the thing about music; it gets into our head and stays there forever. While I cannot remember where I put my keys, I know the words to almost every song of my youth.

The brain loves music. It heightens our intelligence. It makes neurons fire and neurotransmitters light up. As we revisit defining moments of life through music, the brain’s pleasure center is turned on, and we experience the warm glow of neural integration and hemispheric communication, supporting optimal mental health. In a scientific study looking at music’s impact on brain function, Canadian researchers discovered that music is actually part of the human survival instinct. Describing the experience of listening to music in terms like, it sent “shivers-downthe-spine” and feeling “chills,” researchers found that music facilitates biological changes in heart rate, respiration, and electrical impulses of muscles, and affects cerebral blood flow in brain regions thought to be involved in reward, motivation, emotion, and arousal. Music makes the brain come alive.

Memories stored in various brain structures are retrievable through the process of listening to music. These memories produce changes in brain chemistry. People respond to music in two ways: first,by hearing it and feeling its rhythm, and second, through a physical reaction. Listening to music engages our muscles, makes our bodies move, and encourages us into the flow, into a dance of motion and movement. At one with the world, yet rooted to something deep within ourselves, music leaves us less separate, less alone.

One love, one heart; let’s get together and feel all right.

Music is healing: as sound, as vibration, felt through physical sensations—pulsing, beating, strumming, calling to the farther reaches of our mind. Windblown chimes, Georgian chants, tribal drumming, even the rhythmic sound of rain on the windowpane or the melodic churning of surf all act as curative sounds that nurture and renew.

Music therapist, Bythe Philp, MT-BC, CCLS, uses music in her daily work with pediatric patients at Children’s Hospital of Michigan. She says that since music—especially the act of making music—is known to stimulate all parts of the brain, it can help children struggling to cope with life’s more difficult challenges.

“What makes music such a force for healing is that so many people have such an association with music,” Philp says. “The familiarity of songs that mothers may have sung to their children when they were younger, or the type of music your grandmother might have played on the radio, carries through with you your entire life and can really be a source of comfort during times of stress or pain or discomfort.” Philp calls music magic in the way that it strengthens bonds between patients, their families, and other caregivers.

Music is therapy, and we use it to celebrate life’s high points as well as heal our lows—like the pain of a broken heart, loss, grief, or confusion. Music can accompany us, like a good friend, through almost any crisis. High-functioning people use all the psychological tools available to make life as satisfying and joyful as possible, even in the face of formidable obstacles. Since music has the power to soothe our hearts and connect us to each other in transcendent ways, we should take full advantage of its therapeutic value.

In these days of portable digital devices, the healing potential of music is only a couple of downloads away. Why not create a music therapy library of nostalgic songs and albums that take you back to meaningful times, along with a wide array of other musical favorites: classical, contemporary, rap, R&B, gospel, country, rock & roll, jazz, heavy metal, alternative, barbershop quartet? Slip in the ear buds and feel your brain sizzle to life as music activates the mind, energizes the body, and makes the spirit soar.

Are you goin’ to Scarborough Fair?

Forgo the sounds of silence, and surround yourself with music. As a soundtrack to our lives, music has the power to heal.

This first appeared in Ambassador Magazine, Detroit, Michigan.

About the Author

Donna Rockwell, Psy.D. Dr. Donna Rockwell, Psy.D., L.P. is a licensed clinical psychologist, adjunct faculty member, community outreach worker, columnist, and mindfulness meditation teacher. Dr. Rockwell specializes in both mindfulness and celebrity mental health. She works with clients in her private practice and teaches public meditation classes. You can watch Dr. Rockwell on YouTube or read more of her blogs at The New Existentialists.

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