"Where Words Fail Music Speaks"
Hans Christian Anderson
Who has not experienced a nearly instant transformation when listening to a favorite song? Why is music so powerful? Researchers have known for decades that people interpret their feelings differently when their environment changes. Music creates a different environment.
Music operates in the same way as an analgesic. It releases opiates and stimulates the opiate receptors in gray matter found in the brain's center. Opiates or endorphins are our 'feel good' brain chemicals, serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin.
Most people process musical sounds in the same way. The music traverses the neural pathways of the amygdala, an area that processes our emotional expression and pain responses. Then it travels to pain receptors in the spinal cord that interprets the sensation as it moves through the central nervous system (CNS) and, ultimately, the brain. Opiate receptors, in particular, partner with gray matter in the midbrain to produce our feel-good chemicals. Any time we are in pain and hear music, a wave of endorphins supersedes our suffering. (Taylor, 2010)
Music, a universal medicine, has something for everyone in your family, no matter what they are experiencing. First, let us start with infancy.
Early Milestones - Infancy through Six Years
Humans produced the first musical sounds through vocalization and their bodies. "Motherese" vocal or gestural communication between mothers and infants is a simple yet powerful form of music as medicine. In ancient times, motherese taught infants to acquire language and survival skills through melodies and rhythmic patterns.
Babies learn their cues for survival through sound. Consequently, from birth, music is interwoven into our very being. The human fetus can hear music 20 weeks before birth. Early relationships between the sounds and the patterns of daily life, such as the mother's heartbeat, or walking, determine the visceral connection we have with music and rhythm. Music is so fundamental that it evokes changes in consciousness when nothing else can.
Professor Isabelle Peretz of the Center for Research on Brain, Music, and Language at the University of Montreal in Canada states that infants respond to repetitive musical patterns through "entrainment' or the capacity of their internal body rhythms to match musical beats. (Honor, 2015) Not only infants but most people use entrainment the same way.
Joan Koenig, the founder of L'Ecole Koenig, has developed a curriculum using cutting-edge science to teach parents and their children music's transformational power. Her book, "The Musical Child: Using the Power of Music to Raise Children Who Are Happy, Healthy and Whole," provides specific tools to use during the first six years.
Koenig states, "Children need to make music together because it teaches them to become a "we," with the challenges and deep satisfaction this involves." Today, more than ever, children need to experience the exhilaration of a collective effort. Music acts as a magnet for this - it always has."
Spontaneous music and dance in homes are disappearing. However, Koenig encourages parents to release their inhibitions and practice musical expression. At every age, it profoundly benefits language development, memory, social bonding, and mood for both the child and the parent.
For the first six years, she suggests easy techniques for parents to practice with their children.
Where have you gone?
I need the baby to go and find you!
You are slippery and oh so hard to see.
However, the clever baby will bring you to me.
Doop baba do
Woo woo woo
Shabadaba boom boom zoop
"I know you love your teddy bear, teddy bear, teddy bear…"
(or you can insert the name of their favorite toy)
Oh, my darling Mary Anne
She loves to play whenever she can
Shining stars for all to see
Twinkling lights surround the trees
Oh, my darling Mary Anne…etc.
Both Preterm Babies and Parents Heal through Music
In cases of preterm birth, music is a critical healing tool. One mother undergoing interventions at Beth Israel Hospital in New York admitted that a healing journey with her preterm infant felt like a 'rollercoaster .'She felt the auditory aspect of the journey was the most important:
"Hearing is so sensitive in a newborn. It is their whole world...In the iclet, it seems like it would be quieter, but the sounds bounce against the walls, and those sounds are not necessarily pleasant...Music therapy takes the weight off your shoulders."
Parent Interview, April 15, 2013, "A Better Baby Lullaby:
Music Therapy for Preemies," New York Beth Israel Hospital, New York Times
Many hospitals match music therapists with patients with various medical conditions. Therapists usually help patients develop an at-home music therapy plan. It often involves the whole family, for instance, in group singing or group listening.
"When we look at the evidence that the arts contribute to our society, it is astounding. Music therapists are breaking down the walls of silence and affliction of autism, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's disease."
former head of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences
Music Therapy for Neurodivergent Issues
Although music creates remarkable healing opportunities for neurodivergent issues like ADHD, dyslexia, depression, anxiety, and cerebral palsy, this article highlights successful techniques used for autism. At the Els School Center of Excellence in Jupiter, Florida, group music therapy for autism spectrum disorder provides parents with a 'musical toolbox.' Music therapists arrange a playlist before classes for parents and children to listen to and provide a series of pictures forming a story about the class, so everyone knows what to expect. Methods such as visual prompting or using musical cues support communication skills. Classes use the same tools for behavior reinforcement strategies.
Parents acquire a different medium for understanding and communicating positively. Songs from the playlist encourage participants to practice body movements and gestures for specific types of communication. Musical sequences emphasize small and gross motor coordination. Children listen more effectively to musical instructions and repeat them. Music provides an optimistic framework for parents to learn critical coping strategies like validation. (Lense, 2020) One caregiver reported that:
"Music class has let me see that there is nothing we cannot do ... .yes – we might have to tweak it, yes – we might have to do a little extra hand-holding, but there is no reason that he can't participate in everything that a typically developing child can participate in."
ASD caregiver (Lense et al. 2020)
Rhythm is an excellent venue for helping anyone facilitate movement and motor coordination. Rhythm already exists in our heartbeat. The body will move automatically to the beat. Typically young children have a 'functional tempo' of 120 to 132 beats per minute, so it helps if you choose a similar count per minute to motivate the kinetic experience. (Chadwick, 2016) Rhythm is a preferred healing medium for neurodivergent issues involving motor coordination.
Dr. Mary Barbera, behavior analyst, parent of an autistic child, and host of the radio program "Turn Autism Around," notes that group music therapy reinforced many positive traits like saying hello, taking turns, and body awareness. Also, these sessions provide a much-needed form of entertainment and a sense of lightheartedness. (Dr. Mary Barbera, "Turn Autism Around" YouTube, June 23, 2020)
Early interventions, in particular, demonstrate that sessions can strengthen the parent-child bond and help increase the parent's sensitivity to their child's needs. These experiences translated into a greater sense of well-being in the family and a more cohesive bonding element in the family system. Music sessions are accessible and affordable and offer a productive way to have a valuable community experience. (Lense et al., 2020)
On average, Barbera points out that parenting a child with ASD requires keeping that child engaged for about 100 hours per week. Occupying a child is extremely important in order to increase their skills. Music at home, singing, clapping, etc., is a win/win for the parent and the child. New forms of stimulation like learning to play an instrument for both the parent and the child bring tremendous results. For the parent, as they advance in age, playing a musical instrument can help them cope with additional parenting challenges as well as their mood and cognitive challenges. (Dr. Mary Barbera, "Turn Autism Around, YouTube, June 23, 2020)
Everyday Healing for Parents and Caregivers
At the Berklee College of Music, Professor Suzanne Hanzer says that music takes our minds away from hardship and helps us problem-solve. The rhythm alone in music provides an underlying supportive structure to synchronize our breathing patterns, slow them down, and relax. Music evokes positive memories. Hardship becomes enveloped by the essence of a song. Our mood shifts as a result. (Roy Chowdhury, 2021). Studies have shown that just twenty minutes of daily listening create permanent shifts in neural pathways. Ongoing home wellness for the whole family might include:
Community Music for the Whole Family
Going to concerts as a family is a form of therapy in and of itself. Attending a concert is a powerful form of music as medicine. The group bonds and reflects together. (Byers, 2016) It is an antidote to fragmentation and loneliness and revitalizes mental and physical health. Music in the community empowers us and encourages taking responsibility for society. (Ruud, 2002) A concert, communal singing, or even drumming helps with:
Music for Palliative Care
During palliative care or hospice, children and families are often apart. Music therapy can help them cope with loneliness and misconceptions about illness, as well as the loss and disappointment they may feel from dealing with defeating medical diagnoses. The self-esteem of any family member can decrease as fears about pain and symptoms spiral beyond their control. They may not be able to share many things, but they can share music while facing challenges.
Music therapy can help a family explore their feelings about illness, pain, and death in a positive and healing context. Shared communication brings a family together during the caregiving process. For instance, children's rhymes and musical improvisations can also bring a lightheartedness to the family dynamic, relieving them from the heaviness of end-of-life care. (Lindenfelser, Voices, 2005) In hospice care, parents caring for their parents receive the same benefits from a shared melody.
“I think music in itself is healing. It is an explosive expression of humanity.”
Barbera, Dr. Mary "Turn Autism Around" YouTube, June 23, 2020, Music Therapy for Children with Autism | What is Music Therapy Intervention?
Koenig, Joan, "The Musical Child: Using the Power of Music to Raise Children Who Are Happy and Whole," New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2021.
MacDonald, Raymond A R. "Music, health, and well-being: a review." International journal of qualitative studies on health and well-being vol. 8 20635. August 7, 2013, doi:10.3402/qhw.v8i0.20635
Lense, Miriam D. et al., "Program Supports Community Participation and Well-Being for Families of Children With and Without Autism Spectrum Disorder," Frontiers in Psychology, October 10, 2020.
Lindenfelser, Kathryn, "Parents Voices Supporting Music Therapy within Pediatric Palliative Care," Voices, 2005, Seen on: https://voices.no/index.php/voices/article/view/1703/1463
New York Times, "A Better Baby Lullaby: Music Therapy for Preemies," Interview with JoAnne Loewy, New York Beth Israel Hospital, April 15, 2013, Accessed from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qjx2BrrQJg
Roy Chowdhury, Maduleena, "15 Music Therapy Activities and Tools" Positive Psychology, March 12, 2021, Seen on: https://positivepsychology.com/music-therapy-activities-tools/
Ruud, Even 2002. "Music as a Cultural Immunogen - Three Narratives on the Use of Music as a Technology of Health," in Hanken, I.M. et al.: Research in and for Higher Music Education. Festschrift for Harald Jørgensen. Norwegian Academy of Music 2002:2.
Stoma- Chadwick, Martha, "The Benefits of Music for Therapy and the Neurodiverse" Different Brains, https://www.differentbrains.org/the-benefits-of-music-for-therapy-neurodiverse/ August 18, 2016.
Taylor, D., "Excerpts from Biomedical Foundations of Music As Therapy," taken from D. Talor, Biomedical Foundations of Music as Therapy, Barton Publications, 2010, Reprinted with permission.
Whitman, Honor, "The Power of Music: how it can benefit health," Medical News Today, November 19, 2015.