When words fail, music therapy can help heal.
In 2011, Congresswoman Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords was shot in the head while meeting with constituents outside a supermarket in Arizona. She survived but was diagnosed with aphasia — a loss of speaking ability due to damage to the language pathways in her brain’s left hemisphere. In the several months following the incident, Giffords relearned how to talk, thanks in part to music therapy.
At a rehabilitation hospital in Houston, music therapist Maegan Morrow was able to help Giffords train her brain using melody and rhythm to create new neural connections and use another pathway to speak again.
Speech is processed in the left side of the brain, but music is processed by a much wider range of brain structures. Many people with aphasia are able to sing song lyrics while having trouble speaking the same words. Children with speech delays and patients with Alzheimer’s disease have been known to sing even if they cannot speak.
Suzanne Heppel, a licensed professional music therapist at Integris Jim Thorpe Rehabilitation Hospital in Oklahoma City, works with stroke patients who have lost the ability to communicate.
“When somebody loses that ability to speak (from a stroke, for example), we’re going to pull over the music components to bridge that gap so they can initiate speech, imitate sounds or formulate words,” Heppel said.
Heppel will often start by singing a song and having the patient complete the lyric phrase with a word or an approximation of a word on cue. Single words lead to bigger words, and then to imitating phrases. “The more you can work on imitating and initiation (saying words on cue), then you’ll start to see more spontaneous language pop up that’s not cued,” she said.
This feat is only a sliver of what music therapy can do. It can work alongside physical therapy to help someone walk again; rhythmic cues can help improve a patient’s gait pattern so they can walk with more symmetry, better balance and better weight shift. It can also foster good habits of deep breathing to reduce anxiety.
According to the American Music Therapy Association, music therapy “is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions” that “can address a variety of health care and educational goals,” including managing stress, alleviating pain, enhancing memory, improving communication, promoting physical rehabilitation and more. Therapists use tools such as music improvisation, songwriting, lyric discussion, music and imagery and music performance to reach these goals.
The first academic program in Oklahoma City for music therapy came in the early ’80s. In 2016, House Bill 2820 was passed, which requires music therapists in Oklahoma to be licensed and regulated through the Oklahoma State Board of Medical Licensure and Supervision. Now, there are more than 40 therapists licensed in the state.
Music therapy can address mental health needs, developmental disabilities, aging-related conditions, substance use, physical disabilities and chronic pain, among other issues.
At the same time, music therapy is not just playing music to make somebody feel better. “I’m using the music as a tool to engage a physical response from that person,” Heppel said. “You can measure it; you can quantify it … I’ve been able to prove to (coworkers) that there’s good benefits in it, and they love co-treating with me because they see how much it can bring to the table.”
Children, adolescents and adults of all ages can benefit from music therapy practices — and you don’t need a background in music or a decent singing voice to benefit from it.
“Everybody utilizes music in a therapeutic way, in some way, shape or form throughout their life,” Heppel said. “I think it’s something that we take for granted, that we can have as a way of being creative and being expressive.”
To find a licensed music therapist in Oklahoma City, visit www.okmedicalboard.org/music_therapists.