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Music Therapy And Music As Therapy In Addiction Treatment

Posted on: October 28th, 2019

Perhaps one of the most thorough collections of information on music and its effects on the brain comes in This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel Levitin. Diving into the neuroscience of music and the brain Levitin examines a multitude of areas of focus, like why we become so obsessed with songs, why they play important roles in our lives, and how music changes our brain. Considering humanity’s long and intimate relationship with music, there is little argument as to the significance that music holds- or the potential that music holds to change our lives.

If a hit song can change the course of our cultural history, its plausible that a song can be a hit in our personal history, and change the course of our lives.

When we are suffering with the symptoms of addiction and other mental illnesses, we need whatever change we can get. We’ve reached a state of complete and total hopelessness, feeling dismal and dull in mind, body, and spirit. Therapeutically, physically, emotionally, and beyond- we are looking for something we can hold onto and believe in, something that will speak to us in a way that, until now, only drugs and alcohol have been able to.

As Dr. Alan Turry, the Managing Director of the NYU Nordoff-Robbins Center for Music Therapy explains, “Engaging in music is a powerful means of personal development.”

Music Is Emotion

Music doesn’t just speak to us. One of the profound parts of music therapy is that music can speak for us when we cannot speak for ourselves. Those who have lived with active addiction have largely shared a similar experience in having their emotional connection, regulation, as well as expression, taken from them. Drugs and alcohol suppress parts of the brain which contribute to the overall function of emotions.

In “When Music is the Best Medicine”, published in The New York Times in September of 2019, the author discusses her personal experiences with music therapy as an approach to mitigating the challenges of cancer treatment. “Music must be an especially effective form of therapy,” the author writes, paraphrasing a conversation with her husband, “because it directly expresses and creates emotions.” Quite profoundly, the author explains that music therapists meet the “…psychological or aesthetic needs of the afflicted by producing sounds testifying to the fact that beauty continues to exist in the world.”

How Music Therapy Works in The Brain

According to the music therapist providing the music therapy to the author of the NYT article, “‘Music lights up neurons between the right and left hemispheres of the brain,’” adding that music “can also aid in neuroplasticity, helping the brain form new connections”. Building new neural pathways in the brain by building new connections is a primary focus of addiction treatment

Addiction changes the wiring and structure of the brain, reprogramming the way primary functions in the brain operate. In the addicted brain, all operations steer toward the end goal of coping with stressful stimuli by seeking the stimuli of drugs and alcohol. Everything from minor to major stressors end up triggering the same response: get intoxicated. Coupled with a building physical tolerance, this behavior becomes an increasingly dangerous one- everything becomes a stressor, everything requires intoxication, and intoxication requires more, and more substances. If one single stimuli- like a song- can soothe one single stressor- the brain immediately changes, and that change has a life-saving ripple effect.

What Does Music Therapy Look Like?

The approach to music therapy is wide and varied, utilizing every component of music in a therapeutic means. Music therapy can look like:

  • Listening to songs, compositions, instrumentals, or other kinds of “sound”
    • Using the playing of notes on instruments as “vibrational” healing or guidance for meditation
    • Researching and discussing lyrics pertinent to emotional or life experiences
    • Learning how to play an instrument
    • Songwriting or producing music electronically
    • Talking about music and the importance of music
    • Breathwork accompanied by musical instruments
    • Singing, writing lyrics, or free styling lyrics
    • Utilizing components of sound and vibration in creative ways
    • Opening discussions about life-changing albums, the power of music, and how music changes the world, or impacts people’s lives

Music Therapy as Creative Collaboration

There is a certain rapport which develops between a music therapist and a client which may not occur in traditional therapy settings. Without the pressures of one on one talk therapy, clients can feel a greater sense of comfort with room to play and get creative. Letting a little more loose and being presented with avenues for feeling rather than guiding feeling on their own, deep processing can take place in a way that cannot otherwise be achieved. Music therapists collaborate clinically as well, getting information from primary therapists and working with the overall care team to work with a client.

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