World Music Therapy Day

For World Music Therapy Day, We Look at the Life-Changing Power of a Good Song

Music serves as a form of therapy for many or, as Toronto-based creative director Talya Macedo says, “ends up being a soundtrack to our lives.” Just think of the times you have used music to help change your mood or state of mind. You turn on Kanye West’s “Power” while going for a run, play Adele’s “Someone Like You” to get through a heartbreak or put on Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 23” to help you focus while you’re working. But in honour of World Music Therapy Day, we’re investigating the power of music beyond an easy way to cheer yourself up on a bad day.

Music therapy can be used to help people rehabilitate after a brain injury or stroke or to assist those with cerebral palsy, Alzheimer’s disease, autism, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. For more than 20 years, Dr. Michael H. Thaut, director of Music and Health Science Research Collaboratory MaHRC at the University of Toronto and Canadian research chair tier I, has been researching and developing Neurologic Music Therapy with his team. This therapy uses techniques backed by science to treat the brain with music and rhythm.

Thaut, who is a former professional violinist, developed his Rhythmic Auditory Stimulation technique to help stroke survivors and patients with Parkinson’s disease increase their walking speed and assist them with their compromised gait by using music with a rhythmic beat. The effects were immediate and quite dramatic. “As soon as the auditory rhythm enters the brain, it creates a sort of template that entrains or synchronizes the movement,” says Thaut.He also conducts his research using another technique called Melodic Intonation Therapy (MIT), which treats stroke survivors who have been left with little or no speech.

Sheila Lee, a Vancouver-based certified music therapist, has received training to use MIT with her patients. “I had a client who developed expressive aphasia after experiencing a stroke in the left hemisphere of his brain,” she says. “He was able to receive information and understand what others were saying but had difficulty speaking and forming co­herent sentences.” Though he often fell asleep during group music therapy sessions (due to fatigue from his brain injury), Lee says he would wake up whenever the group sang Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

“He would lift his head, open his eyes and sing every word loudly and clearly,” she recalls. “Even though the speech centres of his brain were damaged from the stroke, he was still able to sing his favourite song because singing uses the whole brain, and, most importantly, it was able to access the undamaged right hemisphere.”=

Often, the goal with MIT is to help the patient turn singing into speech by teaching them melodic phrases using words and phrases they would want to use regularly (for example, “Let’s have a cup of coffee.”).