The Beautiful Way That Music Heals

Expressive arts therapies focus on communication through creation

The residents assemble in the recreation room waiting patiently. For an hour, they will have a break from their routine for a concert. They range in age from late forties to seventies to maybe even nineties. But at the concert, they are ageless. I have been playing the cello at their nursing home for many years now. It is this wonder, this beauty, that keeps bringing me back.

I am far from the first person who used music to help heal others. Back in 1970 at Lesley College Graduate School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Paolo Knill founded the International Network of Expressive Arts Therapy Training Centers. Expressive Arts Therapies include writing, drama, dance, movement, painting, and/or music. These therapies differ from traditional talk therapies as they focus on the creative process rather than the end result.

Music Therapy in particular is a rapidly-growing field used to help anyone from wounded veterans, children with autism spectrum disorder, and those suffering from Alzheimer's, to crisis and trauma survivors, both musician and non-musician. Qualified music therapists use activities that involve creating, singing, moving to and listening to music, creating a flexible environment that encourages participation and activity. Moving to music, for example, can help in areas of physical rehabilitation. Listening to music can trigger early memories in patients with dementia or Alzheimer's. Creating music together can help those with difficulty communicating by allowing an alternate form of expression.

Credentialed music therapists have not only enhanced the mental and emotional capabilities of patients, but have made strides in physical health benefits as well. For example, music therapists have worked with children and adults to reduce asthma episodes through musical expression and meditation. They have worked with premature infants to regulate sleep patterns and weight gain. They have helped those with bullet wounds to the brain regain speech.

Like I've found, using music for therapy does not have to be clinical to be beneficial. At the nursing home, I play Bach, folk tunes, contemporary music, and improvisations, and even if the residents don't recognize a song, they are all engaged. When playing, the residents and I are on the same level; there is no stage. We are all human beings listening and sharing together. I do not know each of their stories, nor do I have to. For this hour, we do not have to think about whatever emotional or physical pain we may be going through. But, instead we communicate without speaking. To me, this is the true essence of music making. No hierarchy or elitism. No torturous practicing towards perfection. No sweating under the lights. No recordings. They sway and sing and smile. They are not afraid to close their eyes. What I'm playing is not perfect, but it is present and healing. This is music therapy for me and for all those who are listening.

I use music therapy everyday unconsciously. Songwriting is the way I best express my feelings. I listen to music by myself or with others. I improvise. The whole music-making process is therapeutic: writing, playing, listening, feeling, sharing. It is beautiful.

For more on music therapy, read here.