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Good Vibrations

Music therapy is sound medicine

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Good Vibrations

It's not hard to swallow, it's affordable, and the side effects include a healthier immune system. So what is music therapy and what are its health benefits?

It’s not hard to swallow, it’s affordable, and the side effects include a healthier immune system, less anxiety, and reduced pain. What is this magic elixir?

Music–it directly affects your health and helps you cope with grief, illness, depression, and the stress of everyday life. Music therapy isn’t just about jiving to your favourite tunes–though that’s great for your brain, mood, and immune system.

Music Therapy Bereavement Groups

“Before you die, the last sense to go is your hearing,” says Ken Kuhn, a retired physics teacher in Vancouver. His wife was a nonsmoking, 58-year-old when she was diagnosed with lung cancer; music therapy was part of her life and death. Now Ken volunteers with a bereavement group for teens, led by music therapist Beth Clark of North ShorePalliative Services.

This group consists of 13- to 18-year-olds who cope with grief by writing songs, playing exotic and traditional instruments, and listening to different types of music. “Unexpressed grief is what hurts, and music allows you to express it,” says Kuhn. “There’s no performance anxiety, just an outlet for pain and healing.”

Music Therapy and Illness

Music can soothe sick infants, reduce chronic pain, and ease fear of death. It lessens the need for sedatives during surgery by lowering emotional stress, heart rate, and blood pressure. Music helps people with cancer–or any illness–by providing distraction from pain, easing tension, and relaxing muscles. It can also reduce pain and nausea after chemotherapy or bone marrow transplants.

Music therapist Erin Johnston works with the Child Life Team at BC Children’s Hospital. The kids, from newborn to 18 years old, are undergoing treatments for cancer and blood disorders as well as bone marrow transplants.

Music Therapists

Music therapists are trained professionals accredited by approved programs. After their clinical internship, they work in hospitals, schools, prisons, and private practice. Music therapists set goals, chart progress, and work closely with clients to achieve therapeutic goals.

Johnston visits their hospital rooms with winged xylophones or omnichords for the kids to play while she accompanies on guitar. She also helps the children write songs about their chemo treatments and needle pokes, which they sing to the nurses.

“Parents and nurses are often as or more affected by music than the kids,” Johnston says. “Music affects whoever is in the room.”

Music therapy can teach stroke patients to walk again. Clark explains that rhythm affects our bodies. Since our nervous systems automatically react to sound faster than our brains can process it, we instinctively move to music (though some of us stumble on two left feet).

To teach stroke patients to walk and talk again, music therapists use a steady beat or metronome. Not only do people instinctively walk to the beat but they also feel less fatigue because it’s a natural response. Talking to the beat exercises facial muscles and tongues, which improves speech and chewing ability.

Music in Everyday Life

You don’t have to be ill, depressed, or grieving to benefit from music therapy. Researchers found that listening to classical music improves cognitive ability; other experts add that any enjoyable music has positive effects on your brain and mood. If you need proof, just turn on your favourite music the next time you’re stuck in traffic–and watch how your body responds.

10 Ways to Enjoy Sound Health

  1. Classical music revitalizes old brain cells and lifts depression.
  2. Rock ’n roll lifts bad moods and negative emotions.
  3. Techno music speeds breathing and circulation (good for exercising).
  4. Any enjoyable music can make exercise easier and increase weight loss.
  5. Gentle singing makes sick babies less irritable and less likely to cry.
  6. Music from past happy times lifts spirits and improves moods.
  7. Silence in music increases brain activity and activates memory.
  8. Jazz, piano, and harp music reduce chronic pain.
  9. Music training affects brain development and improves memory.
  10. Any type of music can enhance heart health.
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