Music Really is Food for the Soul

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Music has been called food for the soul. It can be calming, exciting, passionate, romantic, depressing–the list could go on forever.

Why do you listen to music? We’ve all made that party playlist to get people hyped, or that sleepy time mix to ease into the night. However, music can be so much more than that; it can be used to keep you grounded, help you find yourself, or even help someone with a disability.

Cue music therapy.

Music therapy has been used for centuries. In ancient Greece it was channeled as a healing aid. Plato and Aristotle even expressed that music affects the emotions and can influence one’s character directly. The first university to have a course in music therapy was in 1919 at Columbia University. Then during WWII music therapy was used in hospitals as a technique to help soldiers.

Now, many schools offer music therapy classes, and music therapy sessions are more easily accessible.

NYU has had the Nordoff-Robbins Center for Music Therapy since 1989. It focuses not only on training music therapists in the Nordoff-Robbins’ technique, but it also conducts research on the practice, and provides music therapy sessions for patients. They deal with a wide age range and an array of disabilities, including autism, behavioral disorders, developmental delay, sensory impairments, multiple handicaps, and psychiatric disorders.

“Within the session itself there is a lot of spontaneous and playful improvising going on with the music making that we do,” Dr. Alan Turry, music therapist and managing director for the center, tells BTRtoday. “The idea is that everyone has musical sensitivity that can help them to grow and develop.”

“Listening is an action and it might be a very significant thing for, let’s say, a child on the spectrum who is so self-absorbed that they aren’t really aware of what’s going on around them. They’ll actually start to listen to what’s going on.” – Dr. Turry

He continues and adds that they have specific goals in mind during sessions that are specific for each individual patient. The therapist is working towards equilibrium between spur-of-the-moment music making and creating musical forms that have direction and/or a certain quality that has to do with the patient’s mood or personality. “Every session is uniquely tailored for that person—we balance that with very careful study of the session,” he clarifies.

There is never one specific genre or type of music that every music therapist needs to use. Dr. Turry guarantees that the center encourages its therapists to learn a wide-range repertoire of musical sources.

“They’ll learn about scales from different parts of the world, from Spanish, from Arabian cultures, to jazz harmonies, or even the blues,” Dr. Turry illuminates. “We’re trying to cultivate a wide range of musical choices that the therapist can then tap into and also recognize how it could be meaningful for their patient.”

Though the center’s approach focuses heavily on being active and creating an experience, Dr. Turry says there are many different kinds of music therapy techniques. “There are receptive approaches to music therapy—it depends on what the person is looking for,” he says. Turry explains about a technique where the client does not actually play an instrument, but focuses on listening. “The music therapist guides them [the patient] through their imagination and uses particular music that they feel relates to a particular issue for that person.”

The Nordoff-Robbins approach tends to be very active and focuses on creating an experience. Yet, Dr. Turry adds, listening can also be a useful tool as well that they use. “Listening is an action and it might be a very significant thing for, let’s say, a child on the spectrum who is so self-absorbed that they aren’t really aware of what’s going on around them,” he explains. “They’ll actually start to listen to what’s going on.”

One of Dr. Turry’s patients, Maria Logis, shared her story as a patient of music therapy on the Internet to give others hope.

Logis was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This is a cancer that starts in a type of white blood cells called lymphocytes, which are part of the body’s immune system and are located in the lymphatic system (tonsils, spleen, and tymus gland).

“Next time you listen to that rainy day playlist, think about how it could be bettering you as a person.”

In her story she describes that after hearing the diagnosis she felt nothing. As she prayed for some sort of answer on how to go on, or at least what to do next, the thought came to her that she should sing. She writes: “Music reaches me so deeply. Music made it possible for me to go into my hunger, my fear, and my anguish.”

After spending time going through vocal teachers and music classes, eventually she stumbled upon Dr. Turry. She writes that they started off with an improvised music session, and that Dr. Turry explained to her that meant there were no mistakes. This gave her the ability to feel comfortable and after a few sessions she was able to reach into the deepest part of herself. She started to sing about her fears, feelings of despair, being silenced, and oppressed. “Somehow, I was able to voice my feelings in a way that I had never done in my life,” she writes.

During that time her doctors explained that she was going to need chemotherapy. However, after the music therapy sessions she had a C/T scan that indicated her lymph nodes had somewhat shrunk and was able to go into “spontaneous partial remission.”

Though they assured her she was definitely going to still need the chemo eventually, she was happy to show at least a glimpse of improvement.

She continued with the music therapy sessions and now she performs and records her music to share with the world. “What could make me feel better in the face of crushing pain and silence? UTTERANCE,” she writes. “I found my life at last.”

That’s just one inspiring example of music therapy working wonders on someone in need. With even a little research on the therapy technique, you can find hundreds of stories of people feeling like they’ve been able to take control over their ailment through the sound and creation of music.

So next time you listen to that rainy day playlist, think about how it could be bettering you as a person.