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Three men making music together.

Music on the Frontlines

As the world becomes more complex, society continues to seek new ways to feel more connected and feel well. In so many ways the frontline music therapist provides the opportunity to build that bridge.

At the simplest level music brings more meaning into moments. And, at a more complex level music impacts brain function and human behavior reducing stress, pain, and symptoms of depression as well as improving mood, memory, and motivation.

The success of music therapy, at its essence, is about the quality of the relationship between the client and therapist.

Some say it’s the journey. Others the destination. We suggest it is relationships you keep along the way.

Better relationships with patients lead to better outcomes.

A good relationship, the research finds, is essential to helping the client connect with, remain in, and get the most from therapy. “It’s primary in the sense of being the horse that comes before the carriage, with the carriage being the interventions,” says Simon Fraser University emeritus professor Adam O. Horvath, PhD

This #MusicOnTheFrontlines series will share the benefits that are achieved when these positive and productive relationships are formed between the Music Therapist and client  – some in 30 seconds, others over a series of weeks and months.

Music therapy touches all aspects of our health and wellness.

Many music therapists are in staff and management positions, others are community-based providing mobile and online therapy services. 

Music therapy is incorporated into treatment for cancer and has been used to recoup linguistic ability in stroke victims. It has been used to treat patients with dementia, Alzheimer’s, and general memory problems. It has also been used for pain management, stress reduction, developmental delays, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even to improve the health of premature infants.

We know that as frontline healthcare workers one of our roles is to contribute to effective health systems.  “Frontline health workers most often work in the community that they come from and play a critical role in providing a local context for proven health solutions” – Health Workers Coalition

So how does Music Therapy work?

Each session is designed with a number of factors in mind, including the clients’ physical health, communication abilities, cognitive skills, emotional well-being, and interests. After an initial assessment and after the mutually agreed goals are established, the therapist will embark on either the creative or receptive process – and in both cases no previous music experience is necessary.

“In the creative process, the music therapist works with the client to actively create or produce the music. This may include composing a song, engaging in music or song improvisation, or drumming. In the receptive process, the therapist offers music listening experiences, such as using music to facilitate a client or group’s relaxation. Clients or groups may then discuss thoughts, feelings, or ideas elicited by that music.” – Dr. Annie Heidersheit

How music therapy helped calm a patient.

One patient comes to mind when considering how music helped de-escalate and support a highly agitated patient. While working in a neuro-rehabilitation unit, a severely troubled man who spent most of his adult life living on the street came in with a gaping head wound and concussion. The medical team was struggling to help him remain calm. He was adamant that he wanted to leave the hospital.  The Music Therapist was tasked with helping him relax and reassure him that if he remained in the hospital long enough he would give his injury a better opportunity to heal.

As the therapist entered his room for the first time with her guitar on her back he barely looked up as he gave an audible ‘hmph.’ She asked if she could sit across from him and he replied with another ‘hmph.’ In the moment she took that to mean yes. As she moved towards the chair she was simultaneously scanning the room for any identifiers that would give a hint of where to start. What song would establish the fastest relationship so they could move into the discussion of how he is feeling. She was in the middle of making the assumption that he was a Bob Dylan or Eagles sort of guy when he softly mentioned how he appreciated classical music. Sometimes even the most seasoned music therapists don’t guess right.

As the therapist strummed the beginnings of Pachelbel’s Canon he closed his eyes and laid his head back. His breathing slowed, and she slowed the music to match. When the song came to a close, he opened his eyes, sat up taller in his chair, and said a gentle ‘thank you.’ It felt like a good start.

During that first visit and over the next several weeks they spoke about how he was feeling and why he wanted to leave. Eventually, he would sing with the Music Therapist and compose songs that highlighted many significant moments in his life. Using creative and receptive processes in conjunction with his treatments with his highly specialized medical team,  his wound healed and he was eventually discharged.  He was never completely happy to be in the hospital but he did say the music therapy sessions gave him something to look forward to.

Music can be a communication bridge, one that can help you express and process your greatest life challenges, stressful transitions, and at times, an unexpected health crisis. When words are not enough, music can start the conversation. 

The #MusicOnTheFrontlines series will continue to feature many stories from our 30 years on the frontlines of music therapy. Together we will explore the different destinations (positive outcomes), journeys (processes), and the company (our clients)  we have kept along the way.