The Sounds of Healing

Betsey Carle never autographs napkins, wears sequined gowns, or takes tips.

One day while Carle was on the job an elderly hospice patient with faltering memory gave her a snippet of a lyric from an old song he longed to hear but could not place.

Carle searched her songbooks for four months to finally identify and sing “When It’s Springtime in the Rockies” while strumming her guitar.

“The music made a difference,” Carle says. “Many people in that age group remember the song. They mouth the words. And because music is tied into emotion, cognition, and memory in the brain, it takes them back to a more normal time,” she says. “That’s healing.”

The Science of Music

Music therapists hope that scientific research continues to define how their work differs from entertainment, and how it benefits patients as much as other more familiar complimentary therapies such as art therapy.

Even without definitive research, intensive care unit staff at Adventist Bolingbrook Hospital in Bolingbrook, Illinois, recently began using 12 Stryker critical care beds equipped with on-board sound therapy—an aspect of music therapy.

Speakers on either side of the headboard amplify an extensive playlist that includes the sounds of bottlenose dolphins and a version of “Ave Maria.”

“But it’s not a radio,” said Kathy Mitchell, chief nursing officer at Bolingbrook. “We believe it’s going to make patients more comfortable and reduce the need for medication.”

Anthropological studies show that music has been used as a healing agent since the earliest times. The Bible also documents its restorative power. For instance, when King Saul suffered from a tormenting spirit, he asked David to play the harp. “Then Saul would feel better, and the tormenting spirit would go away,” reads 1 Samuel 16:23 (NLT).

However, the intuitive belief of music as a therapy wasn’t put into clinical practice until after World War I, according to the American Music Therapy Association. At that time, hospital workers noticed the healing influence of music when visiting musicians played for troops recovering from physical and psychological trauma.

In 2000, Cheryl Dileo, a music therapy professor at Temple University, launched one of the most ambitious studies to measure the effects of music therapy. She reviewed 183 studies published since 1963 that involved more than 8,000 subjects. She found that music therapy was effective in decreasing aggression in Alzheimer’s patients and relieving pain in cancer patients.

The Mozart Effect

In his best-selling book The Mozart Effect, Don Campbell, a faculty member at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s American Music Research Center (AMRC), describes how music can reduce stress, depression, and anxiety; induce relaxation and sleep; activate the body; and improve memory and awareness. Campbell’s work extends the investigations of Alfred Tomatis, who in the 1950s experimented using Mozart’s music to stimulate children with speech and communication disorders.

Mozart wrote more than 600 major compositions, and something about his music stimulates the brain, according to researchers at the University of California at Irvine who also studied the Mozart effect.

In 2007, at the AMRC’s Fifth Susan Porter Symposium on Music and Health in America, Campbell acknowledged that some people still view music therapy with skepticism.

“It’s because we live in such a noisy world,” he says. “One hundred years ago, sound was always potent.” TVs, cell phones, video games, and air conditioners have cluttered the soundscape, Campbell says.

The Rhythms of Life

The hospital setting helps quiet the environment, and that’s necessary for therapeutic work, says Maria Brignola, coordinator of the Counseling and Therapy Department at Portland’s
Adventist Medical Center.

According to Brignola, music encourages recovery because it mirrors life-giving biological rhythms such as the heartbeat. “It’s comforting because it’s within us,” she says. “Most people, if not all, have the ability to relate to it. Music is a universal language.”

The benefits of music therapy, Brignola explains, cannot be accurately evaluated through linear analyses. “Healing is not linear. It’s more of a spiral. And for full healing to occur, [music therapy] needs to integrate the body and the mind and the whole person.”

Soothed by Music

Music therapist Betsey Carle is certified through the American Music Therapy Association in Silver Spring, Maryland, which represents the gold standard in music therapy training. The association offers a music therapy curriculum that includes a required 1,200-hour internship, proficiency in three instruments, and a national board exam.

Carle not only plays all of the instruments in her push cart—hand drum, keyboard, percussion instruments, guitar, and CD player—she also asks patients to play them. In fact, her guitar comes with a function that performs all the fretwork of specific songs—such as Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven”—while someone strums along.

Some nonverbal psychiatric patients experience musical success this way, Carle says. “For psychotic patients who may not be able to articulate their feelings, this is a door that opens through music because it taps into emotions and experiences, and that doesn’t have to be explained in words,” Carle explains.

Nonverbal hospice patients also respond well to music, according to Carle. She remembers visiting a man in his 90s whose body had become severely contracted due to Parkinson’s disease. When Carle visited him, an aid was trying unsuccessfully to feed him. “He had his face screwed up as if to say, ‘No one is going to get food past my lips,’” Carle remembers.

Carle reviewed his medical chart and, when she realized his roots as a Hawaiian native, she began her therapy by playing “My Little Grass Shack” and the “Hawaiian Wedding Song” in her guitar’s ukulele setting.

“By the end of the session, his face had relaxed. I felt that the music had taken him from a very stubborn place and moved him into a more comfortable and relaxed state,” Carle says. “I call these holy moments, and they happen often enough for me to consider music therapy more of a calling than a profession.”