The Sound of Healing
by Angela Christensen

Music has the potential to improve your health and well-being

Heather MacTavish, a vital, lively woman of 46, received a diagnosis that changed her life: Parkinson's disease. With its progressive symptoms of trembling, stiffness, impaired movement and pain — and no known cure — her prognosis was not hopeful. But she refused to accept life without joy and productivity. After trying a wide range of holistic treatments, she enrolled in a drum clinic. She began to feel better. And the more music she made, the better she felt.

Medical caregivers have long been aware of the power of music to relax patients prior to and during stressful medical procedures. We need look no further than our own lives to find evidence of the same phenomenon: Who among us has not listened to soothing music during times of stress, or turned up the volume on an upbeat tune to keep alert during a long drive? Indeed, some health care professionals use what is called physician-directed music to enhance their concentration during the performance of medical procedures. Others use patient-directed music, which is chosen by the patient to listen to during surgical or dental work.

The use of music in pain control has been found to be an effective tool in both pain management and reduction. According to one Canadian study conducted by Arthur H. Perlini and Kristen A. Viita at Algoma University in Ontario, music may provide a gateway to control of the powerful human mind. Their study, "Audioanalgesia in the Control of Experimental Pain," researched the use of several different types of music in relation to pain alleviation (Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 1996, vol. 28). According to Perlini and Viita, their findings suggest that "clinicians may enhance treatment efficacy by encouraging patients to define themselves as sentient agents who can control pain and anxiety through their own cognitive efforts."

The power of music in healing may be the ability of a patient to use music to facilitate relaxation, stimulate creative imagery and dissociate from or redefine pain, thereby reducing the need for other forms of analgesia. And while much of the mainstream medical community has been slow to incorporate music into standard treatments, this may be changing. In Sounds of Healing (Broadway Books), Mitchell L. Gaynor, M.D., relates stories from his own practice as an oncologist suggesting that the power of music may be too profound to be overlooked, even in the most conventional medical practices.

Music therapists are intensely aware of the powerful effects of music on the human body. They are trained in the use of music to reach therapy goals such as increased movement and mobility, improved speech and communication, and enhanced memory and cognitive skills. Since they are essentially using music to achieve nonmusical goals, therapists are free to choose the course best suited to the needs of the individual. These include playing instruments and singing; dance or rhythmic movement; composition and musical improvisation; and simply listening to music.

Another element of music therapy, developed by Helen Bonny, is fully explored in the book she co-authored with Louis M. Savary, Music & Your Mind (Talman). Called Guided Imagery and Music, or GIM, this technique uses music to teach deep relaxation and meditation. Bonny suggests that stress is often a factor in disease. Stress and illness, she explains, can be eased by "clinicians who have discovered that the stress cycle can be broken by periodic practices which include relaxation, mental imagery and music.'' Bonny's technique does not require any special training and is designed to be used for simple relaxation, as well as in therapeutic settings.

According to Michele Gregoire, Ph.D., music therapist and professor at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla., "We have seen a trend [in music therapy] that began with psychiatric applications to mental retardation, physical disabilities, behavior disorders, geriatric problems and Alzheimer's disease. People suffering from neurological impairments, such as those associated with Parkinson's disease, benefit from the playing of instruments because the musical skills they develop — which involve coordination and balance — help improve motor skills." Continues Gregoire, "While music therapy does need to be kept in perspective as an alternative medical treatment in that it is one of a number of therapies or treatments a patient may undergo — and that by itself music therapy is unlikely to cure any physical or medical condition — music therapy is a viable treatment choice for a wide range of disorders."

Because music is often a group event, those with illnesses which have an isolating effect, such as Alzheimer's, can benefit greatly. According to David L. Hackney, M.A., a psychologist and biofeedback specialist in St. Augustine, Fla., what makes music important and effective in therapy is community. "Music is all about connection and community," he explains. "From ancient times, music has been used by virtually all the peoples of the world for celebration, mourning, religious ritual and for all expressions of deep emotion. Music is a part of healing we cannot ignore, for when we undervalue the role of community in healing, we impair healing."

Five years after her frightening diagnosis of Parkinson's, MacTavish continues to find healing in the joy of rhythm and music. Drumming seems to help unlock the invisible pulse of her body, so that dancing comes more easily than walking and singing comes more easily than talking. With passionate enthusiasm, she continues to make music and to bring music to the lives of others. One avenue for her work is the foundation she created. Aptly named New Rhythms, it's dedicated to helping those challenged by serious and chronic illnesses find their own rhythmic pulse and its attendant joy.

Angela Christensen is a book reviewer, health writer and an editor at Lifestyle Software.