Person Interviewed: Esa Ahmad (3rd Year Student in Integrated Biomedical Engineering and Health Sciences at McMaster University)
Music is an integral part of our daily lives. We listen to various sorts of music depending on our mood: upbeat music when we’re happy or to elevate us and soft, mellow music when we’re either sad or just want to relax. Music also plays a vital role in integrating us with society through shared musical interests. But did you know, aside from music just being sound that we listen to, music can be used as a form of therapy to address the physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of a group or individual.
Music therapy employs music through a variety of activities such as listening to melodies, playing an instrument, and even writing songs indifferent of one’s musical abilities. This form of therapy is appropriate and effective for people of all ages as well as people with auditory conditions or illnesses. Music therapy is an effective method of rehabilitation and supportive way of coping for individuals suffering from emotional issues such as depression, anxiety, and grief as well as physical issues such as traumatic head injuries and illnesses associated with memory and cognition impairment such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.
You might be wondering, "Music as a source of treatment? Does it actually work?" Several studies have displayed evidence of the effectiveness of music therapy in easing anxiety during procedures, restoring lost speech, reducing side effects of cancer therapy, aiding in rehabilitation and pain relief, and improving the quality of life for people with memory-impaired diseases. During surgical procedures, for example, listening to music prior to surgery as well as having it playing in the background during the procedure results in less anxiety in the patient as well as less need for sedatives and opioids to aid with pain.
In my interview with Esa Ahmad, a 3rd year student at McMaster University enrolled in the Integrated Biomedical Engineering and Health Sciences program, we discussed the value of music in our lives, and the science and future of music therapy.
What is music to you?
Music to me is really any sort of creative expression and any sort of catharsis that has
to do with sound. A lot of people think that music is some sort of predetermined set of rules like writing or reading off of sheet music or playing an instrument or following some sort of musical guidelines, but really it’s just a form of art and way of expression in ways sometimes that sometimes our words fail to do.
What are your thoughts on music therapy? Have you ever been treated for something through music therapy?
Personally, I’ve never been treated for anything through music therapy, but I am pretty aware and educated on the topic of music therapy and what it aims to do for people who do seek treatment or support from it. Music therapy is essentially meeting client healthcare goals through musical interventions. And there’s a big difference between listening to music for pleasure or catharsis versus using it for treatment through a healthcare professional or therapist. Music therapy, in a professional sense, requires a licenced music therapist who is credited by the CAMT (Canadian Association of Music Therapists). The music therapist then uses their knowledge through a variety of niches in musical therapy to help their patients reach their healthcare goals. Music therapy is effective and can be used on anyone regardless of their age or health condition including the elderly, young children, people in end-of-life stages, people with neurological or learning disabilities, people with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc. Then, depending on the condition and requirement of the patient, music therapists use musical interventions such as songwriting, playing instruments, recognizing musical patterns, or simply listening to music either individually or in a group setting.
Do you think that there is a specific genre or music type that is best for music therapy?
When thinking of music therapy, a lot of people typically immediately think of classical music that has a soft tone through pianos and violins, but really, that’s not always the case. It really depends from patient to patient and their individual requirements. For example, soft classical music might be effective for me but perhaps heavy hard rock metal is effective for you. There is no one particular genre or type of music that you can narrow musical therapy to. And a lot of music therapy, I think, is self-created since it varies from person to person and there’s no diagnosis determined by the music therapist that works for everyone the same way. Most of the time, you’re really just doing some sort of improvisation in your sessions with a music therapist by recognizing musical beats and tones and following along with them or just writing your own songs through the different interventions. There are some music therapy interventions that are better for certain individuals, though. For example, Nordoff-Robbins found that for children with learning disabilities, such as the ASD type, improvisation is the best musical intervention to use for their treatment as it keeps them more engaged. Music therapy isn’t one fixed prescription either, it’s very open-ended between the therapist and the patient.
How has music therapy changed over the years? What do you think the future of music therapy will be, in say 10 years?
Music therapy has changed quite a bit over the years actually. If you go back to, say, prehistoric times, or pre civilized societies, music therapy actually played a significant role in those societies. All the way up to the Middle Ages, music was revered as a sort of medicine! If you look into its history, you’ll learn that several tribes even used music as a way of healing, so they have a lot of healing songs and healing dances for sick and unwell individuals.
Music, to many societies and cultures to this day is valued and viewed as a way to connect spiritually with one another as well as with God. Music has always been such a vital role in societies. Even in the Greek and Renaissance times, music was viewed as a very potent form of therapy and treatment, not just for mental conditions but physical conditions as well. In terms of physical treatment through musical therapy, there was a patient, and the doctors used musical therapy by playing guitar to retrain him to walk because he was incapable of doing so after a stroke. Another example is of an individual who lost his ability to speak after a stroke! They used music therapy to retrain him to talk by first training him how to sing! The left hemisphere of our brain actually helps us understand this stuff so by training him how to sing, certain parts of his brain were able to spark his verbal skills and communication.
There is so much that has evolved through continuous research in music therapy recently as well. In the early 20th century actually, that’s when music therapy first, sort of became recognized as a valuable source of healing and medicine in Western cultures. In a Western sense, music therapy is still new, but really it’s been regarded as a spiritual and divine medicine by other cultures and societies worldwide for thousands of centuries. As time goes on and as research continues, we probably will continue to discover and develop more effective interventions in music therapy, just look at how far we’ve come in just less than 50 years! And I hope that this field continues to grow and develop, and individuals become more open to the idea of seeking therapy for any issue when necessary overall.
Special thank you to Esa for taking time to participate in this interview with me!