Wake Me Up Inside

April 23, 2012

Last night I finally watched the video of Henry, a man who suffers from frequent seizures and doesn’t respond fluently to questions, but for whom music is an extremely therapeutic tool.  The activity leader at his nursing home found that having him listening to music from his era with headphones was effective in improving his posture, affect, energy, his ability to connect with others, and when the headphones are taken away, is still able to engage with others and answer questions enthusiastically for a bit afterwards.  Oliver Sacks participates in this video, which is actually a clip from a new documentary.

For those of us (music therapists) who see this kind of response every day, the clip is nothing new.  OF COURSE music has the ability to wake us up – to reach places within our brains that we weren’t able to get at with other therapeutic methods.  I’m so glad that people continue to publicize the power of music, and I’m glad that influential scientists like Dr. Sacks are continuing to write books and compile research supporting what I do.

That being said… (you knew this was coming, didn’t you?) the documentary, “Alive Inside” seem to focus on the power of recorded music.  There is nothing wrong with recorded music.  Let me say that again – There is nothing wrong with recorded music.  We have favorite recordings of songs, and favorite singers.  There is nothing wrong with making playlists of our favorite tunes and being able to listen to them immediately.  There’s also nothing wrong with playing recorded music for patients or residents, or them having their own iPod to listen to on a regular basis. Nothing wrong at all.  Except when you call it music therapy.

For those of you reading this who are not music therapists, you may not fully understand the pains we go through on an all-too-regular basis to inform people of what it is that we do.  What is music therapy?  My version is this: Music therapy is the scientifically-based use of music as a therapeutic tool between a clinically trained music therapist and a client in order for the client to reach non-musical goals.  Therapeutic music activities are something that can be provided by anyone, and enjoyed by many.  I have nothing against other people using music therapeutically in their jobs.  I do however, have a viscerally negative response when I hear people talk about music therapy as something that happens when you listen to music in your car.  Or when a care assistant sings with a patient while walking them down the hall.  Music has been around since the dawn of humanity, and many different cultures have found it therapeutic and spiritually enlivening among many other things.  Music therapy, as we know it today, has been around since the first accredited college degree program opened in the 1940s.  It is an official profession.  It is something you must have a degree in to practice.  It is scientifically based.  There is research supporting benefits of music therapy, and I could really go on all day being defensive about what it is that I do every day, but instead, I’ll move on.

After I watched the 6+ minute clip of Henry, I listened to an NPR segment two people sent me the link to about the power of music with people who have dementia.  It mentioned the “Alive Inside” clip for several minutes, which to me seemed coincidental, considering I didn’t know the two were connected. The guest speaker, a social worker, Dan Cohen who runs a non-profit called Music and Memory and who the documentary follows, talked about how his organization got funding to buy hundreds of iPods for a nursing home, so that the residents could have musical experiences (that obviously benefit them) on a regular basis.  A question was posed about isolation and how people already lost in a solitary world can sometimes withdraw when alone for extended periods of time, and he answered by talking about how people who listened to music alone were stil able to connect with their peers following individual music listening sessions, and talked about artists, songs and other information regarding what they had just heard.  That’s so wonderful, right?  The power of music is going viral!?!?! I thought there must be some mention of music therapists in the documentary, or in the clip. It turns out that the woman who hosts the program “All Things Considered,” asked the social worker the following question: “I think the responses that you’re describing are something that music therapists have talked about for years, not just with dementia, but also with say, traumatic brain injury.  What does science say about music and the effects on the brain?”  His response was, “Well…I’m not a neuroscientist. I come in as a social worker and I have sort of a working knowledge of applying this and watching the results.  My goal is to make this a standard of care…” and goes on to say that caregivers could use this program with good results.  I was glad that she gave a shout out to music therapists in her question, but he didn’t mention us at all in his answer.

So, I Googled, “Alive Inside and music therapy” “Alive Inside and music therapists” and a few other variations.  What I found actually made me cry a little.  There were articles, reviews and commentaries about the viral clip of “Alive Inside” that all talked about how powerful music therapy is for these patients.  Remember how music therapy is the process by which a music therapist and a client are working together to meet non-musical goals?  The articles meant well, but the idea behind “Alive Inside” is not music therapy, and there were no music therapists.

You may be thinking, “Hey, you’re missing the point!  This is further evidence now on the benefits of music on folks with dementia and seizure disorders!”  I know, I know… For once, though, I wish that we didn’t always have to fight for our validity.

Music awakens us all in one way or another, so why are most Americans just finding out about it now?

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2 Responses to “Wake Me Up Inside”

  1. funlanguagefun said

    Thank you!! I am totally with you, My friend email me this video and titled “Music Therapy” but, after watching for the first three minutes I was kind upset, because as Music Therapists, we’ve been trying so hard to let people know the differences between Music Therapy and Music Experience and this video doesn’t really help clarify this at all. I am glad that they have positive feedback from music experience but it has to be clear that this is not Music Therapy.

  2. Jennifer Knittel said

    Thank you thank you! I wholeheartedly agree

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