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Music Therapy: An Art Beyond Words

By Anthony Storr 

Music therapy is both very old and very new. Five hundred years before Christ, the followers of Pythagoras developed a science of musical psychotherapy. A daily programme of songs and pieces for the lyre made them feel bright and energetic on rising, and another set of pieces relieved them of the cares of the day and repaired them for agreeable dreams when they retired to sleep. Plato believed that musical training was a more potent instrument than any other, because "rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful." Anyone who has played in an orchestra or sung in a choir will know that participating in music with others enhances group solidarity as well as promoting individual wellbeing.

Yet the deliberate use of music as a therapeutic agent, and the training of specialised music therapists, is a comparatively recent phenomenon in Western culture. Leslie Bunt is such a qualified therapist. He is also a research fellow in child and mental health in the University of Bristol and director of the MusicSpace Trust, a charity devoted to the provision of music therapy and the training of music therapy students.  Music therapy has a special place in the treatment of children who cannot easily communicate verbally; this includes autistic children as well as those with learning disabilities or brain damage. I have no doubt that music can provide an alternative channel of communication that prevents some children from retreating into, or remaining in, a state of total isolation.

But music therapy has many other applications. It can arouse a chronically mentally ill adult from apathy. Improvisation, when a patient can either play or be taught an instrument, can put a person in touch with inner feelings that have long been overlaid or avoided. Leslie Bunt is rightly insistent that music therapy should be validated by rigorous outcome studies; and he gives an excellent summary of what research has been undertaken so far, as well as providing many individual examples of response to music therapy.  Neurologists and musicians are beginning to get together to study what effect music has on the brain. Studies with electroencephalography suggest that music creates a level of coherence between the electrical activity of different areas of the brain.

I have little doubt that, within a few years, we shall have objective evidence supporting the ancient Greek view of music as an important educational tool. Meanwhile, we should ensure that our children have every opportunity of listening to, and participating in, every kind of musical activity.

Source: BMJ April 1994; 308: 1175-1176

Anthony Storr
Writer and Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist
Oxford Health Authority

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