By Catherine Nielsen, MT-BC

In all of the years I’ve spent as a music therapist, I will never forget a little boy who had difficulty with connection and relationships. His goals for music therapy were to improve academic skills, facilitate social interaction, including eye contact and physical touch, and to identify emotions. This little boy “Derek” (the name we will call him for the sake of confidentiality), was 8 years old, and diagnosed with autism.

In our first session, Derek remained seated for less than 3-second increments, screamed and physically hit the walls, with no eye contact and no participation.  No big successes or break-throughs in those first handful of sessions together- at least that’s what it felt like to me.  During our third session, I discovered that Derek responded to a red ball.  When I took the ball out of my bag, I had his attention, and he came closer to me, and was able to follow basic directions. I created an interactive song for him as we passed to each other and when I stopped singing, he was asked to identify a flash card.  During the passing game, Derek made eye contact, engaged in interaction through the game, and by the last session had identified four different flash cards showing emotions. After a few more sessions, Derek was able to sing every word to the passing song with me, which included his singing his name while making eye contact.  As glad as I was to observe the successes of his social and academic goals, the moment I will not forget is when I walked him back to his classroom after our final session together – he reached out and held my hand. After only 8 weeks of music therapy sessions, Derek, who had avoided touch, was withdrawn from family and peers, and had difficulty expressing emotion, initiated human connection – instead of walking alone, we were holding hands.

Stories like this one are not rare between MT-BCs. We often see patients who have dementia and have trouble remembering their own name, come alive, and become able to sing an entire song in the context of the patient-therapist connection.  A terminal patient’s connection to music can allow meaningful connection with family members days and even moments before they pass away.  For young adults who have gone through a loss or a trauma, and have difficulty expressing their grief, creating or experiencing music can be an outlet for emotional expression and healing.  

Why is music so powerful in connection?

Music is universal. Music can reach across barriers of culture, age, race, sex, preference, and past experience to form connection when no other connection may be there. By forming a healthy connection, countless other emotional, social, and cognitive goals can be addressed.

Music impacts the whole person. Music is not only enjoyable and relatable, it affects us physically, mentally, emotionally, even spiritually. It elicits a response even if it is not an observed response. Changes in brain function, blood pressure, heart rate, decreased muscle tension are all physical responses to music. The body responds to music and reacts to music. We have emotional responses to music, memories associated with music, and may be motivated by, or relaxed by music.

Music is social. The reason music is such an effective tool is that it allows individuals of all levels of functioning to respond and interact. This can mean just listening, or it may mean creating music together. The reason this is important is because one of our basic needs as individuals is to connect with others. If that ability is impaired because of a physical, emotional or mental illness, music can help facilitate that communication again, which brings hope and healing again where there was a loss.

There are many other qualities of music that make it an effective tool in connection. The important point to note is that the music therapist is key. Music therapy is different than just listening to music on your own or with friends. Passive music listening can be therapeutic and enjoyable – we encourage it! and music therapy with a professional allows a more personalized experience of music.

Some of our work at PBMTI has been introducing therapeutic drumming into the corporate setting. Music therapy allows for effective team building because participating in the music facilitates positive connections and encourages healthy relationships. When rhythm is introduced into a formal office setting, faces brighten, confidence is built, and the inhibitions people may have had coming in turn in to creativity and interaction.

Something about music reminds us that we enjoy connecting with others, and that sometimes we need to be reminded how important that is to our overall health. Music can help us be transparent and vulnerable, which are needed in close relationships. Music can help us enjoy a shared experience, explore difficult emotions, or relax from the stress of our day. All of these are components of healthy human relationships. Music itself reminds us how to connect.

As therapists, caregivers, and friends, I want to encourage each of us to learn a lesson from the power of music today. We all need relationships. We all long for connection. This is why music is so effective in therapy – because it allows us to connect with others.  As therapists, it is not only important to realize this truth for our clients, but for ourselves. As we care for others we have to make the relationships a priority and care for those as well.

I want to challenge you to make healthy connections this week so you can be healthy as you care for others:

1.)  Do one thing today that reaches out to a loved one (a friendly phone call, note, or gift)

2.)  Turn off your phone for one hour to spend time with someone you love this week

3.)  Find a song you love, listen to it, dance to it, and tell someone about it / why you connect to it

4.)  Take time this week to evaluate your relationships and which ones need more time

5.)  Look for a chance to perform a random act of kindness- for a stranger!

What other ideas do you have for healthy connections?  Do you have a story about why music is important to you or loved one’s life?

Please share it with us!