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Music as Therapy

I recently wrote a blog entitled Winter at Carnegie Hall, which was about Liam, an 18-year-old pianist from Missouri who died by suicide. Following his death, his mother Lisa sought out a way to honor his memory. She eventually came across the Pennsylvania non-profit, Harmony for Peace Foundation. Founded by Tomoko Torri, Harmony for Peace supports the arts, particularly for gifted children. Lisa began an email correspondence with Torri and eventually received a message asking if she was willing to share any of Liam’s original compositions. After sending Torri a piece entitled Winter, Lisa found out that it was chosen to be performed during the Christmas concert at Carnegie Hall. A pianist named Gohei Nishikawa was chosen to perform the song. Nishikawa had a unique connection to the family. He had just lost his father to suicide the previous year. To honor Liam, he placed a framed photo of him on his piano while he performed Winter in front of a full house. Liam’s parents sat front and center.

About the same time I was writing the blog, we happened to receive a message on social media from a Learning Behavioral Specialist in Michigan named Jacob Levy. I reached out to him to learn more about his program called Modified Music-ation. I learned that Levy had experienced a traumatic brain injury during birth that caused him to have learning challenges, particularly with memory and language processing. Early on he excelled at music. He never needed to practice; rather he would simply hear a song and be able to translate it to music on the piano.

“I connected with music,” said Levy. “I began using music as a way to help improve my memory. It became a learning tool.”

Levy went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in Music Performance from the University of Arizona and his master’s degree in Special Education from Northeastern Illinois University. He worked as a special education teacher and found ways to incorporate music in the classroom. We apply music to learning at a very young age whether we realize it or not. For example, we learn the ABC’s to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, so it makes sense that music can improve memory.

“I once had a client who was struggling with anxiety and depression,” said Levy. “I paired the mantra, ‘stay calm,’ to his favorite melody, Itsy Bitsy Spider. When he began to get overwhelmed or anxious, he would then sing his song and gradually begin to relax. Singing this song became a new coping skill.”

This conversation got me thinking about the use of music in a therapeutic setting. We teach youth during our Voice for Hope & Healing presentations that using creativity can be a great way to reduce stress. While listening to your favorite song is a wonderful way to relax, Music Therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals. Music Therapy can be used to help treat depression, anxiety, and behavior disorders. Music Therapy must be implemented by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program (2).

Kirsten Meyer is a Board Certified Music Therapist at an inpatient acute hospital in Omaha, Nebraska. Over the past seven years, she has worked with a variety of patients with conditions ranging from clinical depression to dementia. She took the time to speak with me about what a Music Therapy session may look like.

“When I first meet with a patient, I give them an assessment and create an individualized treatment plan for them,” Meyer explained. “A typical therapy session may include live music making, singing, lyric writing, or lyric analysis. It’s all about self-expression. Sometimes music allows you to express feelings and thoughts that you can’t express verbally.”

Research has shown that music increases the pleasure hormone, dopamine, and can reduce the production of the stress hormone, cortisol. In one study, researchers studied patients who were about to undergo surgery. Participants were randomly assigned to either listen to music or take anti-anxiety drugs. Scientists tracked patients’ ratings of their own anxiety, as well as the levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

The results showed that the patients who listened to music had less anxiety and lower cortisol than patients who were given drugs. This is only one study so more research needs to be done to confirm the results; however, it suggested a potential medicinal use for music (4).

Music has an innate power to evoke emotions, memories, and words. Hans Christian Anderson said it best when he said, “Where words fail, music speaks.”



Jill Hamilton, Project Coordinator, The Kim Foundation

Jill Hamilton has been the Project Coordinator at The Kim Foundation since 2014. She graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and a Speech Communication Minor from The University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2009. Since working at the foundation, she has become an active member of the Nebraska State Suicide Prevention Coalition, Nebraska LOSS Advisory Committee, The Omaha Metro Hoarding Taskforce, The Early Childhood Mental Health Coalition, Nebraska State Conference Planning Committee, is Chair of the Nebraska LOSS Teams Conference Planning Committee, and serves as the Outreach Coordinator for the Metro Area LOSS Team.