Podcast: "The Positive Effects of Music Therapy on Health"
Date: April 29, 2010
Hosted by: Steve Mencher from the Library of Congress
Guest: Concetta M. Tomaino, the executive Director for the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function and Senior Vice president for Music Therapy at Beth Abraham Family of Health Services
This podcast is from the Library of Congress Music and Brain series. Host Steve Mencher interviews Concetta Tomaino about music therapy and the positive effects it has on health. Tomaino begins by discussing how she discovered music therapy in the 1970s during her pre-med studies (she was double-majoring in music and biology), where she observed the powerful effects music had on her dementia and Alzheimer's patients. She mentioned that with the "right" songs, people with dementia who could not previously talk, came alive with memories and singing. Tomaino continues on to say that with the advent of technology in the last ten years, neuroscientists can now explain what she was observing at her clinic. She says that research now shows that music is processed through a complex system of neural networks - networks that "talk to each other" when processing music. She says that through sound, music therapists are able to reach fundamental areas of the brain through these complex neural networks.
The podcast continues with Mencher asking Tomaino if music therapy should be done with a therapist or if music can be prescribed like medicine. Tomaino responds that the best music therapy is accomplished through interactive musical therapy sessions. After seeing what activities cause a positive change in the patient, the therapist can then continue with that activity or prescribe practice tapes and recordings of a particular music that will enforce these positive changes. She says that through a combination of music and the constant repetition of a particular musical activity, the therapist can help the patient make permanent changes in his/her brain.
Mencher then asks Tomaino how music therapy could help his mother-in-law who has trouble with her gait. She explains that musical rhythm can drive the fundamental motor areas, the basal ganglia and the cerebellum, into action. Rhythm "turns" on these parts of the brain that are associated with movement and gives the patient something to synchronize his/her movement to. Tomaino says this is much easier and more natural than trying to think about how to walk.
Mencher continues on by asking about the importance of rhythm and melody in music therapy. First, Tomaino discusses that rhythm is fundamental mechanism in music and the human body. She talks about how from the time of birth, humans are wired to perceive rhythm. This is a basic mechanism that therapists can "tap" into in order to turn on neural networks. In regard to melody, Tomaino talks about its importance in discussions of music and emotion. It is in the melody of a song that is important to you, or the shape of a given melody where musical meaning is perceived and explained. She discusses how neuroscience has discovered that when people listen to music that is pleasureful and meaningful to them, certain parts of the brain turn off (the amygdala). This part of the brain that is responsible for fear is not needed during these pleasureful experiences; thus, we are able to more fully engage in and relax into the experience of listening to music. Tomaino discusses that the effect of melody, emotion and rhythm on the brain is key to music therapy.
Mencher asks a final question about how the field of music therapy has gained more attention through writers such as Oliver Sacks. He asks how Tomaino's work has been impacted by this attention. She answers that people have finally started to take the field more seriously, even scientists. She comments that only thirty-two years ago, scientists told her that music and the brain could not be studied scientifically; but now, everyone is interested in studying it, from cognitive scientists who want to understand the mechanisms with which we process music, to clinicians who want to know the neuroscience behind what they see on a daily basis, to the general public who want to know how it is that music can be so powerful. She says that with the expansion of literature from writers like Sacks, there has been a general growing inquisitiveness and more wide-spread use of music therapy.
Tomaino ends this podcast by saying "I feel reassured that the world has changed". Thirty-two years ago she knew that music had healing properties and observed this in her clinical work, but it is only now that science is reaffirming this power of music.
I thought that this podcast was an informative introduction to how music therapy works, as well as to how the field as developed in more recent years as a credible, scientifically-based form of therapy. I think it is absolutely amazing that music can help Alzheimer's patients come "alive", as Tomaino says. My grandmother had Alzheimer's, so I now have some more insight into the reasons why she was able to respond and remember songs I played for her, when she couldn't even remember who my grandfather was. I was also fascinated by Tomaino's discussion on rhythm and its ability to effect us at neurological level in the most primitive parts our brains (cerebellum and basal ganglia). It is interesting to know that rhythm is so engrained in us that it can be used to help people regain important motor functions.
Tomaino discusses how she has seen the healing power of music in her clinical work throughout the last thirty-two years, but that it has only been in the last ten years that her observations have been able to be explained by neuroscience. It's too bad that it has taken so long for this field to be recognized as legitimate among scientists and therapists. I do remember back to my impressions of the music therapy program at the school where I did my undergrad (about ten years ago). I knew very little about the program, but I do remember hearing daily group drumming and xylophone playing by students dressed like hippies. At the time I thought that music therapy couldn't possibly be a legitimate form of therapy, and that if anything, music therapy could only add enjoyment to a patient's life. This was my impression until I read Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia (which covered some of Tomaino's work). Now taking this course, I am even more interested in learning about music therapy. This podcast is a great introduction to the field of music therapy, a field that I hope will continue to grow and eventually become part of mainstream medicine.