Music and Trauma

Music is magical. Right? Many of us turn to music in times of pain and sadness because of its inherently emotional nature, but music’s effect on mood is no abra-kadabra. According to Asaad Meymandi’s “Music, Medicine, Healing, and the Genome Project,” published in Psychiatry, Matrix Medical Communications, ancient cultures including the Sumerians, Greeks, Egyptians and Jews used chants, singing and music to heal physical and mental pain.

To what extent can music be substituted for medicine? Is it an effective tool for coping and healing from trauma? How much can music physically heal? Music therapists, neurologists and musicians alike shared their knowledge and research on the topic to find the answer.  

As Earthly beings, it makes sense that music affects us on a primal level. According to Meymandi, rhythm and harmony occur naturally in the wind and tides; human life is guided by the Earth and cosmos’ cyclical rhythm. The sun and moon and the changing of the seasons exemplify this principle as well as human activities like eating, talking and walking.

Brian Harris, the CEO and Founder of MEDRhythms provides neurologic music therapy to achieve sensorimotor, speech,  language, and cognitive goals for patients with Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) and brain disease. Harris established the neurologic music therapy program at the Revolving Rehabilitation Center in Boston four years ago and built the program with TBI and stroke patients. Harris said, “we found that people were getting better faster with greater results, now we had the neuroscience to explain and replicate the benefits of music therapy.”

When demand vastly outgrew Harris’ individual capacity, he established MEDRhythms, a clinical service that provides hands-on music therapy as well as digital therapeutics. MEDRhythms therapy treats all movement-related goal areas including language or cognition due to neurologic injury or disease, such as Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis, Autism, and many others. Certified neurologic music therapists use live music to treat patients anywhere from infancy to elderly. Harris focused on rhythmic auditory stimulation- music to improve walking- and used technology to replicate interventions he was doing in practice. He developed a system that utilizes small shoe sensors to collect data about how someone walks and his algorithms process data and administer rhythmic auditory stimulation autonomously. Of the digital service’s two and a half years of development, Harris says, “It’s been a journey but it’s been fun and rewarding and worth it.”

The first music therapy session Harris saw was at an internship with Surry Music Therapy his junior year where he worked with children and adults with developmental delays. Within the first five minutes of his treatment, an 18 year old boy functioning at the level of a one year old began functioning at a higher level than anyone had ever seen him before. His family and caregivers “came in the room and were literally in tears because they couldn’t believe that this was happening.” “It was at that moment that I realized this was my calling in life,” said Harris, “I knew there must be a reason in his brain that the boy was able to respond to music, and if we’re able to answer that question as to why, we could really harness the power of music and then replicate it to help a lot of people.”

The neuroscience behind what Harris does applies to 97 percent of the human population regardless of age, culture, ability, disability, interest or experience in music. According to Harris, over the past 20 years, “the clinical and neurological research has increased dramatically and we’ve found two primary principles, the first is that when humans passively listen to music we like, it engages parts of brain responsible for movement, language, attention, memory and emotion. There is no other stimulus on Earth that activates our brain as globally as music does,” said Harris.

The second principle is training in music- actual lessons, engaging in interventions aids in the process of neuroplasticity, or the human ability to learn new things; a principle by which someone with a brain injury can recover. The brain has the ability to create new and strengthen old connections throughout its lifespan. Most of the science comes down to the power of rhythm, which engages the human motor system. This is because the human auditory and motor systems are connected- when you listen to music it can engage the movement center to improve the quality of your movement.

This science applies to healthy people too. We run in tempo with music because it facilitates a neurologic response for movement. “Ancient medicine used music too,” said Harris, “we’ve always known that music has a medical power but historically it’s been difficult to explain.”

Three years ago Harris and a colleague founded a group within The American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine, called The Arts and Neuroscience Congress (TANC). TANC brings awareness on a national level to the benefits of arts and neuroscience in clinical practice. “Every day we see incredible outcomes and response to music, greater than other traditional therapies alone,” said Harris, “we have the neuroscience to explain so I can tell the doctors and neurologists how this is actually happening and that is almost as rewarding as seeing the patients recover.”

Lasell College students, Sara Gaebe, Molly Parrot and Kira Corredine wrote their capstone on a theoretical music therapy program for people with dementia, following extensive research. The three created a proposal complete with funding, staffing and logistics that they submitted to the Braun award and won. “Our program was created to improve the quality of life for people with dementia and understand that they haven’t lost themself just pieces of their history,” said Corredine. “The biggest takeaway is that there needs to be more research,” said Gaebe. Corredine concurred, saying “This is non-pharmaceutical, so there’s not as much funding from Big Pharma who can push for research on medications.”

“Your brain reacts to pleasure when you experience something good or positive, the same way it does when you listen to music you like,” said Corredine. The three also cited the case of Henry Drayer, a man with dementia whose responsiveness and cognitive function increased dramatically when given an ipod with his favorite music. Previously mute, he sings and dances in his chair for all to see when he has his headphones. When asked how music makes him feel, Drayer responded “The Lord came to me and made me a Holy man.”

It is clear that music can astronomically improve cognitive functions that are crippled by TBI and brain diseases, but what about other brain functions like mental illness, trauma responses and mood or behavioral problems?

Lou Lim is the program director at Baycove Human Services, where he has overseen psychiatric administrative responsibilities since 2017. His job description includes facilitating art therapy to help people explore how to regulate and address addictive behaviors, running a music therapy group called Finding Your Rhythm, which focuses on interpersonal effectiveness through finding music as well as a ukulele-accompanied singing group where clients can breathe their own voice into the Beatles or Cyndi Lauper songs.

When Lim’s parents wouldn’t support his dream to perform on Broadway he chose to pursue child and family psychology. Lim grew up in a religious home with a Christian experience. He wanted to assure that a career in counseling would acknowledge his religious experience and saw inspiration in the role of music in his faith. “At my church, I’ll play for the band and when I’m able to play music it helps me to engage with what the music is trying to teach or what the music is trying to have its listeners prescribe to. Being able to sing songs clients relate to helps to improve their mood, it makes them less sad or anxious and allows us to relate in a way that is most meaningful to them,” said Lim.

Lim has been working in mental health services since 2008, “pretty much every client has reported some kind of traumatic event,” this includes physical, emotional and sexual abuse, or even witness to violence or trauma. Lim was working during the marathon bombing and supported clients who experienced the tragedy firsthand. He also noted that homelessness can be a traumatic experience for many. “When we work with people who have experienced trauma or a terrible event, from a group therapy perspective we provide a space where they can share that experience or emotions related to that experience with others through music, art or creative outlets,” said Lim. It is also noteworthy that someone’s ability to express themselves, process something or see the world in a way that others experience it, may not be the same for trauma survivors. This may leave them feeling disconnected and misunderstood.

“Creating music can be very powerful and inspiring way for individuals to express themselves,” said Lim, “They are making things that have never been used before, they are able to express an emotion where words are lacking, which can be powerful and meaningful.” Equally as valuable to Lim is witnessing the creative process. Listening and being able to feel when hearing music or relating to what’s being expressed helps people connect themselves or others.

“I think performance art is meaningful and valuable to the human race,” says Lim. “Garnering empathy by sharing something with a group of people can be a cathartic experience  for performers as well. I would imagine it’s common that performers have feelings or experiences themselves that allow them to work through something whether they planned it or it is the outcome of performing.”

Composer and singer-songwriter, J.L. Marlor, of the band Tenderheart Bitches, said “I couldn’t have come out without music.” The queer artist spent her life closeted because of her family and penned an entire album about her unresolved heartbreak and pain for other women while still in a relationship with a boyfriend she “didn’t bat an eye for.”

When her best friend and producer of the aforementioned album confronted her about her struggle, Marlor broke down and decided it was time to embrace her identity. She broke up with her then-boyfriend and pursued women despite her parent’s wishes. She collected her feelings and wrote “bathwater,” “a scorcher about knowing what’s best for you, but also feeling drowned by the reality of who you are,” said Marlor.

“It was really special for me actually; at the time writing it was necessary-cathartic,” said Marlor, “It was the only medium where I could express this simultaneous feeling of absolute joy (of accepting yourself) and fear.” “Bathwater” is a dichotomy between comforting, cleansing, warmth and the terror of drowning. The line “She came over me like bathwater, and I slipped on without hesitation,” directly mirrors “it’s drowning me like bathwater, this too will leave and circle the drain.” Marlor plays the song at queer shows and “there often isn’t a dry eye in the room.”
“At the time it was the bravest thing I could get into words,” Marlor said, “The first time I sang it my hands were shaking so badly I could barely play guitar, but now when I sing it I only have joy; every queer person in the room relates to it.” Marlor’s LGBTQ+ peers have an outlet for camaraderie and solidarity within her work. Furthermore, she has also given straight and cis audience members a look into the pain of living a life on the outside.

Merriam-Webster defines trauma as “a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury.” Whether someone has survived the marathon bombing or is living in fear of their own identity, their traumatic experiences can manifest psychologically in PTSD, anxiety, depression, guilt, mood problems, addiction and withdrawal from others and activities. Trauma can also cause physical reactions like fatigue, difficulty concentrating, muscle pain and tension, and being easily startled.

Right this minute you are reading this article, but there are millions of other data points that your body is receiving. Maybe you hadn’t noticed the temperature, lighting or noise in your environment until your attention was called to it. Now that you are aware that those data points are not all received consciously, you can understand that the experience of trauma is processed in the same way: it is received by the whole body, sans thinking.

As a result, trauma survivors may experience manifestations of traumatic experiences or chronic stress and repeated trauma in ways that are difficult, if not impossible, to talk about. “This is because in order to talk about something, we must think about it.” says professor Kimberly Griffith, an adjunct professor finishing her second year at Lasell College, who teaches three psychology courses. “Often, people will have experiences that are frightening because they can’t explain them and this is because they’ve not thought about them in order to store those experiences. This explains why when anxiety and flashbacks strike they incite a cycle of fear,” said Griffith.

Professor Griffith just finished her dissertation on body-based interventions to trauma treatment, specifically exploring the effects of yoga asana. Griffith is a yoga teacher and yoga therapist. She practiced for psycho-dynamic body work as a massage therapist for 15 years and worked in a sexual assault crisis unit beforehand.

Griffith says that a significant amount of the world’s population has undergone trauma. Complex childhood trauma, or repeated abuse or neglect by a caregiver, is more common than most would think, and interpersonal violence is a close second.  “Often, what people end up seeking treatment for is a symptom or manifestation of a trauma, which we treat instead of the root” says Griffith.

She accredits non-verbal body work as an effective way to address pathologized trauma. “If a memory wasn’t stored with speech it’s below [one’s] awareness and so sometimes a different root to excavating that is absolutely necessary. Music is a physical experience, it’s a vibration that is measurable on a cellular level,” says Griffith. Ancient drum circles, singing and crystal bowls all work to create a vibration in a space.  

“My experience of musicians is that they often report a state of flow, it seems like time stood still outside of oneself, even though it didn’t,” said Griffith, who praises the “productivity and creativity that comes of that brainwave pattern;” something that also occurs in athletes like swimmers and long-distance runners.

“I think that it’s extremely beneficial for people to understand that they’re not alone in their experience and that what they’re experiencing is actually normal,” said Griffith, “When a horrific thing happens in your life you should react in an equally matched way. Normalizing the reaction is something that sometimes only a peer can effectively do.”

Hannah Shefsky, a music therapist who works in the Oncology and Psych wards at Massachusetts General Hospital said, “A lot of the folks I meet have PTSD deal with an emotional trauma. If people are not quite ready to use words, music can be a more body-based place to start.” Shefsky began in music education teaching privately and non-profit after undergrad and then earned a masters at Lesley College in clinical mental health counseling with a music therapy modality. She plays piano, guitar, ukulele, melodic percussion instruments like tank drums and sings.

Shefsky defined music therapy as the clinical and evidence based use of music and music based interventions to address a wide range of musical goals: reducing stress and anxiety, pain and pain perception, physical recovery, enhancing memory and social connection. “I see the impact of music every day,” she said.

Shefsky offers individually tailored activities in the hospital and outpatient centers to Oncology patients including gentle live-music listening for relaxation, active music making to relieve stress and enhance mood, creative project writing or recording for self-expression that can be shared, or learning an instrument to improve focus and keep patients “connected to the healthy, human part of themself that can learn something new and be creative,” Shefsky said.

On the psychiatry floors, she facilitates music therapy groups as part of group programming, which is focused on active non-verbal expression to reduce stress and connect with others, and also includes movement to recorded music to engage the physical body.

“I think music therapy can work with almost anyone,” said Shefsky. She knows other music therapists working in school settings with students who have autism, behavioral or emotional challenges, some work within the greater scheme of a community to bring its inhabitants together and others in private practice.

No matter the setting or the diagnosis, science proves that music has a potent universal healing ability. In an ideal world we could all buy records instead of prescriptions, but until that day perhaps it is a smart idea to bring a little more harmony to our lives.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: