I am a strong believer in the incredible and varied effect music can have on us. I believe in its ability to shape our brains and our selves. It's for this reason that I started both my children in piano lessons just shy of their fifth birthdays. Music is the vocational passion of my life and it's what I'm building my career on.
As a music therapist, I have been able to harness music's influence on our brains and our selves to effect amazing clinical change. It has made the walking patterns of those who've had strokes more fluid, faster, and stronger. It's given me a direct connection to a child in the throes of a "fighting" stress response, allowing me to bring the child back to a calm, regulated state. It's worked to create a safe space for families in hospitals to grieve and process the loss they were feeling as a result of illness and disease.
Music has many benefits both in general and as clinically facilitated by a trained music therapist. But music is not a cure-all and there are problems it can create.
If you want to see me cringe, show me a picture of an infant wearing headphones or an expectant mother lovingly holding headphones around her belly. Why do I cringe? Because in both situations, the child is not developmentally ready to process the intensity of the sound stimulus. It's too much.
It's for this reason that music therapists who work in NICU's are very careful and intentional about the sound stimulus they create to support the infant's ability to thrive. It's vocal, soft, fluid, has a limited pitch range, and a simple melody. They also closely monitor the physiological and behavioral indicators for subtle signs of infant distress and respond as needed.
Don't get me wrong—it's not the music that makes me cringe, it's the use of headphones on such young ears. Music can be a actually be a wonderful way to bond with your baby, both in utero and not. But that connection comes from hearing YOUR voice and watching YOUR face as you sing to him or her. Not from headphones.
Speaking of headphones…I wonder if we'll see a spike in hearing loss in the coming decades given the increasingly ubiquitous use of headphones and earbuds. There is ample evidence supporting the connection between loud music concerts and hearing loss. What about the intense loud noises that emanate so closely to our eardrums?
Of course this just references adult hearing—what about the impact of headphones on the developing hearing of our children? The development of our musicality and ability to process sound continues through the teenage years. How will headphone use impact hearing for our children? For the first time this year, my school-aged children are required to have personal headphones at school for use in the computer lab. This makes me nervous—who will be monitoring the sound levels, not just for my children but for all the other children in the classes? I at least purchased child-specific noise reducing headphones and will talk to my children about controlling the sound levels. But will others?
Music is second only to smell for it's ability to trigger memories. This is due in part to a long evolutionary tradition that connects a need to process sound quickly in order to survive. Clinically, there are certain situations where this can be incredibly powerful, as in cases where dementia is involved and a well-known song creates a moment of lucidity. But it can also be unwelcome and unwanted.
When I began my master's degree, one of my neighbors, upon hearing I was a music therapist, shared his dilemma—he loved music, but could not enjoy and pursue this love because everything he listened to reminded him of his recently deceased wife. Because of the strength of this memory trigger, he could not take pleasure in music, even though he desperately want to (I validated his situation and offered a couple of general suggestions to him with the caveat that it could not replace professional treatment). He is certainly not the only one.
Several years ago I guest-facilitated a support group for caregivers. As I was not their primary group facilitator, I intended to keep the session more superficial, with a primary focus on educating participants about music therapy and the services offered at the hospital. As with most of my educational sessions, I incorporated a song. Several participants teared up during the song—Sarah McLachlan's "I Will Remember You"—but one member seemed particularly touched. Head down, tears flowing, at the end of the song, she opened up about how she was supposed to be the "strong one" of her family and that this was the first time she had permission to cry, to grieve the sister she lost the year before to cancer.
Music has this ability to trigger powerful emotions, often in conjunction with a memory, but sometimes not. This particular group was facilitated by myself and a licensed social worker (the primary group facilitator) and we were trained to be responsive to emotional situations like that as they emerge.
Music is not a one-size-fits-all experience. Not everyone likes music. And very few people like every type of music. In fact, most people I have talked with have certain genres, songs, or artists on their personal "no listen" list. Hearing that song, artist, or genre—even in an open public space—can induce negative responses physiologically and/or emotionally. In my experience this is commonly felt as anxiety.
In a clinical setting, music therapists are trained to be aware of responses that may indicate heightened anxiety, even in clients who are unable to speak for themselves. For example, consider a community of individuals living with dementia or Alzheimer's disease. Although music can be a powerful elicitor of memories for them, the "wrong" music can have a different effect, causing anxiety and distress in one individual that could easily spread throughout the group.
As Uncle Ben counseled Peter Parker, "With great power comes great responsibility." The same can said for music. It wields an incredible power over our minds, bodies, and emotions. At the same time, though, we need to be aware that this power does not alway work in our favor.
NOTE: This post is inspired by this summer's opinion piece in The Atlantic titled "The Dangers of Overestimating Music Therapy," the cleverly-titled blog post "11 Problems Music Can Solve," and the countless clients I have worked with who have taught me about the power of music.
Follow me on Twitter @KimberlySMoore for daily updates on the latest research and articles related to music, music therapy, and music and the brain. I invite you also to check out my website, www.MusicTherapyMaven.com, for additional information, resources, and strategies.