What is music therapy?

How does music therapy work?
20 April 2019

Interview with 

Jorg Fachner, Anglia Ruskin University


this is a cartoon of a human brain, made from musical notation


Whether it’s Basement Jaxx or Beethoven, Jazz or punk rock, everyday billions of us enjoy listening to and playing music. But can this ancient artform be used therapeutically, to benefit our health? This month, Naked Neuroscience is putting music therapy under the microscope. To find out what actually goes on in a music therapy session, Katie Haylor spoke with Jorg Fachner from the Cambridge Insitute of Music Therapy Research, at Anglia Ruskin University...

Jorg - Music therapy has different approaches. So let's say the music therapy which is based on making music together and then discussing about music or not discussing on what you have done. So let's say when you just make music together you are in a non-verbal space interacting with the other one. You may think "well I'm not able to play that" but rhythm is kind of something that everybody can use, a rhythmic activity. So we are basing a lot on the rhythmic activity when we're playing music together and it does not mean that you need to be sophisticated on the instrument. You can just hack on a piano.

Then of course the therapist would just join in and try to get the pace off your [tap tap] or whatever you do on the piano, you know. When you start playing single notes, the therapist gets in place or just gives you a certain range of harmony and you can add melodies onto it. So these are things that we are doing when we do music together.

We just may sing songs together which are of importance for that person because we know that this is now that therapist when he has spoken with that person before that this song is of value for him or for her. So this actually it is quite interactively situated so you can adapt completely to the other one in that situation with the music you can play music that will cheer the person up, or you can calm somebody down that is agitated in a way, so you can use the properties of music in an interactive context to bring somebody to a goal that you want to set or that the other one wants to achieve.

Katie - There are various different types of therapy, talking therapy for instance or maybe medication. Why you use music to tackle a problem rather than other techniques?

Jorg - Music is the language of the emotions, so the way that you can say something in the music is different to using words. So I'm trying to say something now which makes sense, but if you have a very complex thing sometimes you can say it much better - like an emotion that you can't express - but if you can play it very strongly on a drum or you play it very gently which is like a symbol of touching, you can express much more sensitive with your senses what is inside which is unspeakable which you can bring out and that is something that makes music incredible as a tool to express yourself.

So that's the emotion and then attention on what you're listening to and then joining in with others, you know, you don't need to speak. People who don't have the social techniques, talking properly, expressing you know what they want to say properly they may be able just to express themselves much better in the music. So music for them is a proxy or can be a proxy to express things.

Katie - I know you're particularly interested in neurodegenerative diseases like dementia for instance.

Jorg - When dementia kicks in, then the brain degenerates and of course with that then we have mental health problems coming in so you can't express what you want to say, you may not remember properly what you once knew, you may not be able to do things that you were able to do and that of course is causing distress and you're emotionally disturbed, you feel something's not working so my body is not doing what I am used to, and you can become very depressed. You will be isolated in a way, not functioning in the society as you were and you know exactly every hour every minute that this is the case now.

And so when we use the music we can offer a space in which all the, let's say, social techniques, conventions of everyday life, is not really needed but you are together with somebody and you can do things together and you can still be a human being. So music therapy allows you to be human even when you have lost a lot of capabilities.


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