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What is Music Therapy?

When someone asks, “what do you do?” I imagine they expect an answer like teaching or counseling.  Based on the looks and questions that inevitably follow, “I am a music therapist” is not what they anticipated.  Granted the response these days is more often, “oh, you have an awesome job!”  This was not the case 10 years ago when I entered the field.  We’ve come a long way in that time. Initially, the response was, “oh, interesting” with no follow-up questions even though it was obvious their curiosity was killing them as they dissected the mysterious pairing of two such words as “music” and “therapy” connected with a career. It was like they wanted to ask, “You mean you could get paid for that?”

Honestly, as a junior in high school, I would’ve asked some of the same questions.  I have always had a passion for helping others and have loved music since before I was born, but strangely enough the high school aptitude tests never mentioned music therapy as a potential career path. My parents were the catalyst. They saw an article; I called the therapist. I observed a session in which a young man who was paralyzed due to a brain injury could make choices and move his arm independently with music therapy! I was sold. When you witness music therapy, it is so much easier to understand how the two words can go together. It’s still fascinating and awe-inspiring to me after 10 years! And here’s why: music is irresistible, pervasive, and in the hands of a music therapist, music becomes purposeful.

Music is Irresistible

We can’t help but love it. Music captivates us; it motivates us; it moves us. The pounding of a drum, the lilt of a flute, the resounding reverb off an electric guitar…they each have meaning even for someone who has never heard a lick of music before in their life (which is no one, keep reading). We connect with music. We connect through music. It is inherent, inspiring, and it is irresistible. So irresistible, in fact, that when a song is playing in a café the baristas make coffee in time with it and people talk, turn pages, or type to the rhythm of the music without realizing it. It actually takes a conscious effort NOT to move to music. Also, notice: the baristas are not classically trained violinists, the readers likely just needed a time away from teaching vocabulary to elementary students, and the ones typing away on their computer are probably not cranking out sheet music to their latest orchestral score…it’s more likely to be a spreadsheet or a Facebook post. A common misconception is that music therapy only works with musicians. Absolutely not! Music therapy uses the elements of music (rhythm, melody, harmony, etc.) to build up skills (sequencing, communication, recognizing social cues) and it works because most anyone will respond to music without even trying. In fact our bodies themselves are musical – heart rate is a rhythm, brain waves are frequencies/pitches, your voice has a prosody/melody…even non-musicians are musical beings.

If the irresistible nature of music is why music therapy works, then the pervasiveness of music is how it works.

Music is Pervasive

When you listen to music – even just passively sitting there and letting the sounds wash over you– you are already using so much of your brain. Brain imaging in neuroscience research indicates this very thing. There are 5 main parts of the brain – frontal, orbital, temporal, parietal, and the cerebellum – and when you passively listen to music you’re moving in sync (temporal), processing (frontal), visualizing (orbital), feeling or sensing (parietal), and associating or developing a memory or emotion (cerebellum). That’s the whole brain, folks…and that’s just listening! When you are actively participating in music, your brain is even more active. Of course, the brain is complicated and those processes themselves may pass through various areas, making a pathway or a network.  The principle is the same: music accesses the same pathways and areas that those non-music skills use. This is how music therapy works.

This is how, when I walked into a hospital room with a teenager who had a stroke during team practice, I could use music to calm nerves, stop tears, and give back a voice. We know that the brain accesses speech in a certain way and that singing uses a parallel network, so even if a person loses their speech due to damage in the brain, singing may still be possible. We can’t stop there, though! If we just stop there we can sing a song but can’t say what we need. A CD player is great and there are videos that show how powerful listening to music can be for a man with dementia or a patient with a walker. It is powerful, yes, but with a music therapist it could also be purposeful! We know why music therapy works; we see how it works…but a music therapist can actually make it work.

Music Therapy is Purposeful

A stroke at 13 was devastating enough on its own, but hitting the call button and not being able to say anything when the nurse answered literally added insult to injury. And so I walked in at the exact moment she needed help.  Because of my assessment I knew her background, situation, and needs. Because of my training I knew to meet her where she was. Because of my neuroscientific approach I knew her emotions were overpowering what speech she did have, so that was my priority: calm first. We used preferred music to get her mind off of frustration and prime her brain for the work ahead. We used singing to access speech then faded the singing to rhythmic chanting and faded the rhythmic chanting to simply speaking the phrase.  Within 15 minutes she was able to say, with no additional support, “I need help.” By the time her dad walked in, she could tell him, “I love you.”

The stories that keep my passion for music therapy going do not end with this one patient. I could tell you about the teenager on the autism spectrum who developed his abstract thinking through music therapy, or the newborn who finally started eating because music motivated, cued, and reinforced the feeding, or the woman with dementia who learned her new grandson’s name and birthday with a simple song as a memory tool. Each are very real examples of why and how music therapists make music work.

We are blessed to have three music therapists on staff at the Star Center, which provides far more diversity of experience and expertise than a typical service provider. I sat down with my two colleagues to discuss our specializations and approach.

What is your favorite population to work with? Rayma: Infants in the NICU. Libbie: Adolescents. Chrissy: Neurological rehabilitation. What goals do you find the most satisfying to work on? Rayma: Immediate health goals: Lower heart rate and higher oxygen stats. Libbie: Increasing Independence. Chrissy: Cognitive goals such as switching attention or problem-solving. What is your favorite instrument to use? Rayma: Paddle Drums for developing motor skills. Libbie: percussion for socialization in a group setting. Chrissy: adaptive instruments for clients with limited motor skills.

Through the Star Center, we get to work with individuals and groups, with or without disability, on-site and in the community.  If you know someone who might benefit from these services, contact Chrissy Watson at 731-554-5148 or by email at


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