As parents, we intuitively know that music can help an irritable toddler to calm down, an unsettled baby to sleep, and an angry teen to express their emotions. But did you know music therapy is so much more? A research-based practice gaining widespread acceptance and application, music therapy can actively support health, function and wellbeing.
The American Music Therapy Association says, “Music therapy can make the difference between withdrawal and awareness, between isolation and interaction, between chronic pain and comfort, between demoralization and dignity.” Locally, the importance of music therapy is reflected in services offered at our hospitals, special schools and in palliative care. For Angela Delaney, a registered music therapist with Queensland Health and private practice, the positive impacts of music cross all ages, backgrounds, challenges and emotions.
“Music provides a safe place,” she says. “It doesn’t require verbal communication, making it accessible for very young children and for those where communication may be challenged. We can anticipate where the music is going when we listen to a piece – we identify familiar patterns and anticipate the flow of the piece.” This enables the listener to respond confidently, and react or interact with the piece in a ‘safe’ way.
Angela’s work includes engagement within special education departments at schools, and in palliative care – tapping the benefits of music therapy for everything from opening communication to managing behavioural issues and pain management. Asked about recent research into music therapy and autism, Angela says singing, creating songs and listening to music can help to generate ‘shared attention’, learn routines, reinforce turn-taking and more. A recent international study showed weekly music therapy sessions had a positive effect on behaviour in children with autism, with just one hour per week making a notable difference.
Music as Medicine
You would expect an Emergency department to include doctors, nurses, needles, pathology and medications. But what about music therapy? Angela works as part of the Emergency team with a public children’s hospital and says music therapy can help children to express their fears, alleviate anxiety, and prepare for treatment. She cites recent research from a medical association journal indicating that young patients who experience music therapy pre-procedure experience a positive impact on levels of pain and distress when undergoing intravenous placement, and lower rates of pharmacological pain management than those who did not. Positive benefits were also observed in the parents and healthcare providers.
In a broader sense, music therapy has been proven to provide a positive impact in psychiatric health care, improving motivation, relational and social capabilities, and helping to relieve depression. Angela also works in palliative care with children with terminal illnesses, and says music can help to control breathing, relax the body, assist communication where verbal communication is not possible, and reduce perception of pain. And the benefits are broader than the immediate patient. Where family members participate in the sessions, the singing, collaboration and fun can help normalise the situation for siblings – creating a space where they relate to their loved one simply as a brother or sister without the cloud of illness overhead. And for parents, the sessions can provide priceless memory making opportunities.
A Common Language
But it’s not just critical conditions that can benefit from music therapy. With links to psychology, speech development, and behavioural management, music therapy can help kids with language development, anxiety management and more. Angela tells of a young client who was becoming increasingly distressed at kindy drop-off each morning. From initial distress to a daily emotional outburst, Angela says when she was engaged, her young client had started developing anxious behaviours which were effectively resolved by creating a song together which could be repeated each morning before drop-off and worked to express his fears, provide reassurance, create a new pattern of behaviour and start the day with a familiar, fun song.
You might do a similar thing in your home – a ‘happy’ song to turn a tantrum into a smile, a crazy-dance competition to ward off the ‘crankies’ or making up silly songs in the car. We all know the impacts music can have on our emotions – the soul-lifting joy of singing along to a favourite song, to tear-inducing ballads, to the fierce enthusiasm of a footy theme song belted out en masse. Angela provides some tips to welcome music into your home:
- Sing, sing, sing! Angela says, “To a baby, your voice is like a rock star. I could be the world’s greatest performer, but your baby will still prefer your voice.” You don’t have to be ‘good’ and no one needs to hear but your babe – so keep singing!
- Give instruments instead of toys. Listening, playing and exploring new sounds and rhythms provide benefits on so many levels, says Angela. And do you really need another car or doll in your house?
- Reinforce nursery rhymes. The pattern, phrasing, rhyming and repetition of nursery rhymes are important in pre-literacy and speech development.
- Create music – encourage the kids to invent silly songs and actively participate. “It doesn’t have to be perfect,” says Angela. “The content is all there inside you.” From loud, angry drumming to ridiculous, funny lyrics, music can provide an outlet and another channel to communicate.
- Explore. Angela suggests developing a relationship with music. Explore different styles and sounds and invite music into your home daily.
Angela Delaney is a registered music therapist working on the Gold Coast and in Brisbane. The Gold Coast University Hospital will commence a newly founded music therapy program this year – a first for the Hospital’s paediatric care service.