August 17, 2016

The Universal Language of Healing

Throughout the ages, a diverse cast of philosophers, poets, mystics and musicians have all hailed the beneficent energies of music. The Greek philosopher, Plato once wrote, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind and flight to the imagination.” For Plato, music is a sonic gift from the gods intended to educate and enlighten the soul to its highest virtues. Some two thousand years after Plato, Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, echoed Plato’s regard for music. “Next to the word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.”

Long before Martin Luther and even before Plato, Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism, acknowledged music as the link between the soul and the universe when he wrote: “Music in the soul can be heard in the universe.” More than two millennia later, the king of classical music, Beethoven concurred with Lao Tzu, writing, “Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.” In their statements, both Lao Tzu and Beethoven clearly hold music in the highest esteem, regarding it as a form of prayer or communication between the divine and humankind.

Imagine there’s no music.

Music is so intertwined into the human experience that it is virtually impossible to imagine the world without it. Indeed, the 20th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche would agree, once opining that, “Life without music would be a mistake.” A little later in the 20th century, the mystical, musician-poet Bob Marley would offer a unique insight into the potential benefits of music, when he stated: “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”

The last part of Marley’s statement, “you feel no pain,” is at the heart of the underpinning philosophy driving the growing field of music therapy. What has been anecdotally hinted at through the centuries now appears to have a growing body of scientific evidence emerging to support the potential of music to deliver palliative and even curative effects on a wide range of physical and psychological conditions. In short, music heals.

Music heals what ails the soul.

A recent article published in Scientific American, titled “Music Can Heal the Brain,” explored new therapies that are using “rhythm, beat and melody to help patients recover language, hearing, motion and emotion.” There is an accumulating body of scientific research that supports the premise that “music therapy” is much more than just a nice, buzz phrase of the times. The evidence is revealing that music can indeed be used in therapies to enhance not only one’s “quality of life,” but also positively influence the outcomes of psychological treatments, medical procedures, rehabilitation processes and other long-term care efforts.

For example, therapists overseeing the recent rehabilitation of U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords used music as part of the therapy to recover her speech. Giffords, who suffered traumatic injuries to the left side of her brain governing speech, learned to use her right brain to sing what she wanted to say. As she progressed, she was able to drop the melody and simply speak again. Two years after she was shot, she testified in her own words before a Congressional committee. Gabby Giffords’ recovery has served as an inspiration to millions of Americans, and has turned up the spotlight on the role that music may be able to play in wide range of healing modalities.

What exactly is music therapy?

Although it has been around for a little while now, the field of music therapy is just now beginning to blossom. Initial research and success stories indicate that the potential of music as a modality of therapy and healing is nowhere near being tapped. Interestingly, the benefits are not restricted to specific forms of music to the exclusion of others. However, it may become more clear as time goes on that some forms may be more constructive than others.

Practicing music therapists are open to the use of all forms of music in a variety of settings and presentations. For example, one musical therapist may help someone with learning to play an instrument. Another may perform music for a patient, while still another may play music along with the patient. Instruments employed may range from African drums and crystal bowls to violins and ukeleles, and all points in between.

Live or recorded, music heals.

The benefits of music therapy strategies are not exclusive to the live performance of music. On any given day, a music therapist may employ an iPad and a Bluetooth speaker over a live guitar or other instrument to deliver the music. In fact, recorded music may ultimately offer a wider range of possibilities for the use of music than does a live presentation, which is obviously limited by the musicians available and their relative level of skill and musical interests. Whereas with recorded music, one could employ the ambient soundscapes of a Brian Eno, the world rhythms of Afro-Celt Sound System, the impressionistic piano music of Ravel or Debussy or even the modal jazz of Miles Davis.

These are but a meager few of the virtually unlimited recorded musical choices available for potential use in music therapy. Classical. Jazz. Rock. Dance. Reggae. Gospel. Ambient. All of these and more. In short, music therapists can use whatever works in lifting the spirits of the patient. If it’s feels good to the patient, it is potentially useful in delivering palliative or curative effects.

The musical therapist is a DJ of healing.

The typical certified music therapist tends to be an accomplished musician, one who has an expansive knowledge of music from multiple genres, both new and old. Combining their own deep knowledge of and familiarity with a broad range of music, therapists are then able to access and employ a specific genre or piece of music that might prove most beneficial to the actual therapy the patient needs. One might say, a music therapist is like a club DJ of healing, queuing the right music for the purposes of the moment.

For example, if a patient needs motivation for a particularly challenging physical rehabilitation treatment, the music therapist may choose an upbeat, rhythmic piece of music, like a Bob Marley reggae tune. Conversely, a therapist treating an anxiety riddled patient might choose a more meditative piece of music, say, a George Winston solo piano piece. Many times, just asking the patient what music makes them feel good will drive the therapist’s choice.

Music is the secret language of the heart.

In his new book, The Secret Language of the Heart, award-winning composer, speaker and author, Barry Goldstein shares in detail how each and every one of us, whether musical or not, has the ability to harness the healing power of music to alleviate a wide range of specific illnesses. Goldstein strongly advocates the use of music therapy in reversing psychologically negative beliefs and attitudes, dissolving so called creative blocks and improving overall physical, mental and emotional health.

Backed up by the latest scientific research on the benefits of sound, music, and vibration, Goldstein’s book is a great starting place for those who feel drawn to music therapies, whether as a potential practitioner or end user. In The Secret Language of the Heart and in his workshops, Goldstein offers practical and specific instructions for using music as a therapeutic modality for healing that can be individually tailored to suit specific patient needs and preferences. Goldstein’s book adds more positive advocacy to the growing body of research, literature and information regarding the efficacy of using music in the treating of mental illness.

Music goes where other therapies can’t even reach.

A recent article published in Psychology Today points out that the need for music therapy strategies is essential. The article indicates that 25% of all adults in the U.S. suffer some form of mental illness each year. However, surprisingly only about 40% of those adults actually seek treatment. That is a lot of mental illness accumulating each year that goes untreated.

The article states the estimated costs of mental health issues worldwide top $2.5 trillion annually, including actual costs of health care, the loss of productive patient functionality, or in extreme cases the loss of life itself. With the number of mass shootings and loss of innocent lives we have collectively experienced in recent years, it is all too easy to understand the implications to the collective costs of untreated mental health on society and to humankind, in general.

There are many viable alternative and complementary treatments that could also provide therapeutic value, including other non-musical creative arts like poetry or sculpting, or Eastern practices of meditation and yoga. However, because of its ubiquitous presence throughout the world, music has a unique potential to go places where other modalities may not reach.

Famed folk singer and activist Pete Seeger was a pioneer of musical therapy as a means of improving mental health, long before the science began confirming the efficacy of what he advocated. Seeger viewed music as a positive creative power in the world that created connection and a sense of community that inspired social change. It is now the domain of mental health professionals to pick up where Seeger left off and continue extending the path he cleared for those who come behind him.

Music is the universal language of healing.

In the simplest terms, music is the universal language. It knows no borders, speaks to all cultures regardless of language barriers, transcends all geo-political and religious identities and speaks directly to the individual human being. It bypasses all hierarchies of institutional authority to create a direct communal experience among diverse groups of people, providing a bridge over the troubled waters of postmodern history. Stated another way, music bypasses all of the left brain activities in the world that keep us locked into belief systems of separation, while reminding us of our fundamental unity with the divine and, by extension, with one another.

The sounds of music vibrate and resonate in both the conscious and unconscious aspects of one’s soul and physical being. The vibratory quality of a specific piece of music can have either positive or negative influences on the cellular activity and life processes within the human body. For a closer look at the tangible effects of these ideas, one should take a look at the work of Dr. Masaru Emoto and his essential book, The Hidden Messages in Water

Among other observations, Dr. Emoto’s work provides a fascinating look at the effects of different kinds of music on water molecules. Since the human body is primarily composed of water, his work provides visible evidence that the energy produced by a particular musical expression has physical effects in the body, both positive and negative. Whether the effects are ultimately constructive or destructive to an individual depends not only on the vibrational quality of the music itself, but perhaps more importantly, on the relative quality of the individual consciousness experiencing the music.

Does music heal? Research says, “Yes!”

Researchers are continuing to reveal and confirm that both listening to and playing music is strong medicine, so to speak, for a wide range of mental health issues. For schizophrenics, the research confirms that adding music to an overall therapeutic regimen has demonstrable effects in alleviating symptoms and improving social functioning. Additionally, the research proves that music therapy can be effective as an “independent treatment for reducing depression, anxiety and chronic pain.” Music also produces physiological and biological changes, and depending on the music chosen reduces heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels, among other observable effects.

Besides the positive effects it adds to mental health treatments, music is also proving effective in a variety of medical and surgical circumstances. For example, music: 

Improves patient experience before, during and after invasive surgical  procedures. Controlled clinical trials reveal reduced anxiety and need for sedation in patients who listened to music before their procedures. The presence of music in recovery rooms also lowered the need for opioid-based painkillers.

Reduces side effects produced by cancer therapies. Patients report that listening to music reduces anxiety and stems nausea associated with chemo and radiation therapies. 

Provides palliative relief for sufferers of chronic pain. Research confirms music therapy’s efficacy in decreasing the perception of pain, reducing need for pain medication, relieving depression and restoring a sense of control to the patient of acute or chronic pain.

Improves quality of life for patients suffering from degenerative diseases. In patients with degenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or dementia, music therapy aids in memory recall and communication, while reducing patient agitation and improving physical coordination.

Now for the really good news about music therapy.

The best news of all is that science and medicine are only just now beginning to unravel the secrets of music’s healing powers. As we move forward, there is bound to be more positive news and therapies coming to our attention and then being used. Music therapy is a wide open, exciting  field of therapy that is blossoming right before our eyes. It will be exciting to see how and where music, the universal language of healing, shows up in the future.

In the meantime, reach for your favorite music right now and turn it up. Even if you are not in obvious need of music’s palliative and curative benefits, something with this much good going for it will always be good to you and for you, no matter what is going on in your life.  

Stay tuned in…


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