Music Therapy

“I didn’t do much, musically, for a few years after my sisters and I stopped touring. There was something telling me that I needed to get back to it. Having that creative outlet, the social aspect of it, working with other artists. It is very therapeutic indeed.”

This from musician, Heather Rankin, the youngest member of the Juno Award winning Rankin Family.

Music, as a complementary therapeutic approach to wellbeing, has become increasingly widespread in recent years. Currently, there are between twenty and thirty Music Therapy Accredited (MTA) professionals working in Nova Scotia.

Tom Curry became an MTA, six years ago, inspired by experiences in connection with his grandmother.

I’ve always been able to lose myself in music, like a meditative experience, but I never really understood how it could be a therapy until my grandmother developed dementia. She had high anxiety and confusion, she was talking gibberish and was confused. I would bring my guitar and play three songs for her – She’d go from agitated to calm as soon as I would play. Her focus was on the music.”

Curry receives referrals from social workers and nurse practitioners suggesting MT care for their patients. He has worked in group homes, hospitals, schools and nursing homes. Facilitating therapy for individuals with dementia, mental illness, schizophrenia, autism, depression, trauma and anxiety.

In terms of participation, everyone plays at their own pace and in their own way.

“In the hospital Geriatrics Unit, they may have had strokes, falls, heart attacks… I’m using music as to bring people together, there is a social aspect to it. You want to engage individuals in the music, so there is a physical component. Getting people to shake shakers, clap their hands, tap their feet, or – most importantly – getting them to sing.”

As far as physiological benefits, Curry says singing is a major influencer. Encouraging balanced breathing, improving heart rate, promoting blood flow; it wakes them up and boosts their mood.

There is also a cognitive aspect. For individuals with dementia, memory loss, or mood disorder, hearing the songs they are familiar with provides comfort. It is a part of their lives over which they have control, giving them confidence and making them feel good.

In cases of aphasia (where the expression of speech is lost, usually from brain injury or advanced age), an individual may not have dialogue, but may make sounds, or verbalize better through singing than conversation. This musical approach to communication can be effective in improving lost speech as well.

At the Impatient Mental Health Unit, Curry says patients are dealing with illness, regulation of medication, anxiety, and re-learning social interactions.

“I go in there and it’s about creating a calm environment. They can simply sit with me, or sing, or play along with an instrument. On that unit it’s about feeling good, having some fun and taking a break from all that weights them down. It’s like, ‘This is where we figure things out, how we get better’. It’s not always about the music; but that opens it up and now they’re talking and having positive communications.”

The potential of music therapy has a ripple effect, reaching beyond the patients to care-givers and facility staff members.

“Staff definitely benefit and be can helpful too. I like it when they participate; maybe they sing a song, or someone does a little dance down the hallway. It’s good for morale.”

In recent years, MT has been highly recommended for individuals with Parkinson’s Disease. Curry hypothesizes MT may benefit this particular disease because of the natural rhythmic patterning.

“We are very rhythmic beings; I think there is something in aligning ourselves with the music that balances us. If you think about the environment where we do our best work – be it an office job, or bailing hay – we’re best when we create a rhythmic train, when we’re in the flow.”

Curry believes much of his success comes from simply taking an interest.

“Sometimes I won’t play a note. It’s about being intuitive and watching what they gravitate towards – fun songs, slow songs, laissez-faire wrong notes…what do they need? I take my cues from them.”

Catherine Knott is a journalist, health professional and reiki councillor. You can reach her at catherineskyeknott@gmail.com.