Songs, Stories, and Healing

December 03, 2021 - 10:20 AM - 1529 views

Research has shown that music alleviates symptoms of anxiety and depression. As music therapists – we see this every day. These days – my first encounters with clients often bear the marks of anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Their faces are drawn, shoulders slumped, and body language closed and tight. They report that they are “okay” or “getting by” – and as we enter into the music together – it never takes long for a shift to occur. The muscles around the mouth and eyes begin to relax, shoulders draw down the back and the body begins to express a sense of openness. There are smiles, even laughter.

I listened to this song a lot when I first started experiencing depression. It’s different to listen to it now – to see how far I’ve come.”

We know that music impacts the limbic structures of the brain – namely the amygdala and hippocampus – calming the nervous system and stimulating powerful memories and strong emotions. We know that music increases the production of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin in the brain – decreasing cortisol levels and inducing feelings of well-being. For the music therapist – understanding the effects of music on the brain and the body help us to assess in the moment what the client is experiencing and how we are to respond. For the client – the experience of music, and its impact – are often felt, and more easily expressed – through stories and meaning located in the music.

“Sometimes I think that this artist could have been experiencing exactly what I am now when they were my age.”

Music is one of the ways we mark our passage through time. It accompanies nearly every human ritual and experience – weddings, funerals, cultural celebrations – graduations and birthdays – every experience of celebration and mourning. The soundtracks of our lives and the way we experience music over time often provides us with opportunities to reflect on our own growth and change by connecting to our memories, values, feelings, and community.

“I relate so much to the lyrics – it’s like she’s singing exactly what I feel” 

Hans Christensen once wrote – “Where words fail, music speaks.” Every day, experiences in music therapy prove this to be true. When we are experiencing a downturn in our mental wellbeing – it can be difficult to find the words to express exactly what we feel. Sometimes – we may not even be aware that depression or anxiety are at the root of other experiences such as sleeplessness, loss of appetite, or racing heartbeat. When we find a song that captures our experience so perfectly, we feel seen, heard, and understood. 

“When I listen to this song – I don’t feel so alone.” 

We will look back on this time and no doubt recall it as one of the loneliest times in our history. This is especially true for people experiencing challenges with their health – as hospitals, treatment programs, and care facilities restrict visitation and community engagement to protect the most vulnerable. But the right song, at the right moment – a musical interaction or experience – nurtures connection not only with others but to ourselves. This remains unchanged by distance, bandwidth, or layers of personal protective equipment.

“This song reminds me of someone I’ve lost.”

“Someone I was in treatment with showed me this song – and it got me through that tough time.”

“Whenever I listen to this song – no matter what – it makes me feel better.”

We return again to the human brain and bodies chemical response to music. Dopamine increases motivation, serotonin stabilizes mood, oxytocin creates a sense of connectedness, and endorphins reduce pain – both physical and emotional. The result? We feel “better.” More than that – our brains, and the many systems within the body it governs – are functioning more optimally – carrying us forward. But it isn’t just chemistry – it is story, community, connection, memory – all the things that make us human that we miss so dearly these days. All the things that music gives us, without failing.

To me – being a music therapist on the frontlines is about the union of story and science – what we need, what we feel, how we evolve and heal, and who we are – which can all be discovered, expressed, and experienced so fully in music therapy. The role of music therapists on the frontlines is to be a part of maintaining this balance in the organizations and lives of the clients we serve – to approach health, wellness and recovery firmly rooted in both sound clinical evidence and making sense of it all through the stories we find, and tell –  in our music. 

Written by Jesse Dollimont, MTA

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This blog post was written for our #MTOnTheFrontlines series, which will continue to feature many stories from our 30 years on the frontlines of music therapy. Together we will explore the different destinations (positive outcomes), journeys (processes), and the company (our clients)  we have kept along the way.  

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