When words fail to express pain and sadness, there's something called music therapy.
"It's really a combination of psychology and music,"Abigail Peace, a board-certified music therapist at In-Tune Mental Health Services in Hollidaysburg, said. "It's very closely linked with traditional psychoanalysis - traditional talk therapy. It allows people with emotional trauma and stress to gain a greater self-awareness, achieve resolution of inner conflict and self-expression."
Music therapy is a clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions used to promote wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, express feelings, enhance memory, improve communication and promote rehabilitation within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program, according to the American Music Therapy Association (www.musictherapy.org).
"Music is processed in a different part of the brain," Peace, 39, said. "Whether it's music with words or without words, it cuts through the language barrier. When people experience music therapy, they almost always realize the potential and benefits."
Music therapists assess emotional well-being, physical health, social functioning, communication abilities and cognitive skills through musical responses; design music sessions for individuals and groups based on client needs using music improvisation, receptive music listening, song writing, lyric discussion, music and imagery, music performance and learning through music; participate in interdisciplinary treatment planning, ongoing evaluation and follow up, according to the AMTA's website. They work in psychiatric hospitals, rehabilitative facilities, medical hospitals, outpatient clinics, day care treatment centers, agencies serving developmentally disabled persons, community mental health centers, drug and alcohol programs, senior centers, nursing homes, hospice programs, correctional facilities, halfway houses, schools and private practice.
"One of the first clients I ever worked with was severely [mentally] disabled," Peace said. "When she came into the music session, after a time she stopped all her negative behaviors, she was able to sing with music and speak clearly. It was so profound. It was just amazing to me, and from that moment I knew I wanted to do this."
The idea of music as a healing influence which could affect health and behavior is as least as old as the writings of Aristotle and Plato, according to Sister Donna Marie Beck, professor emirita of music therapy at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. The 20th century discipline began after World War I and World War II when community musicians of all types, both amateur and professional, went to veterans hospitals around the country to play for the thousands of veterans suffering both physical and emotional trauma from the wars.
The patients' notable physical and emotional responses to music led the doctors and nurses to request the hiring of musicians by the hospitals. It was soon evident that the hospital musicians needed some prior training before entering the facility and so the demand grew for a college curriculum. The first music therapy degree program in the world was founded at Michigan State University in 1944.
"I call [music therapy] the servant source because it facilitates the process of becoming well in the moment," Beck, 78, said in a phone interview.
"This therapy is like a tool - it serves a purpose," she said. "It renews the spirit and validates in a holistic way the person and who they are in the moment, because it changes the entire atmosphere or milieu surrounding that person ... like when a child is very sick in a hospital setting and has nothing to think about other than the fact that they are not well. Music can change that."
Beck still does therapy sessions helping people who have issues with work, marriage, depression and "just ordinary, everyday problems."
"It's a wonderful process of discovery - getting into a person's psyche through music," she said. "I've even learned more about myself in the process. It's funny how we put things away from the past - we think it's over - but things arise and we have to deal with them. Dissonances of the past cause dissonance in our present. Music can help us evolve into a new way of being. Because under the dissonance there's light and creativity."
Peace has seven years of experience working with children and adults with autism and developmental disabilities. She's done consult work with local psychologist Dr. Mary O' Leary Wiley, has performed clinical training in a state correctional facility psychiatric unit and a long-term care facility dealing with hospice and palliative care and she has done supportive work with families of individuals suffering from developmental and/or physical illness.
"I think music therapy can be very effective with a wide range of patients, especially those who are less prone to express themselves verbally," O'Leary Wiley said.
She also has done collaborative work with music therapy in treating panic attacks, grief reactions and autism spectrum disorders.
"Some people can express emotions more effectively through music than through talk psychotherapy, although talk therapy remains the preferred choice for many," she said.
And there is tangible proof that music therapy works.
The AMTA promotes a vast amount of research exploring the benefits of music as therapy through publications such as the "Journal of Music Therapy," "Music Therapy Perspectives" and the "Nordic Journal of Music Therapy," Beck said, adding a "substantial body" of literature exists to support the effectiveness of music therapy. (For a more comprehensive listing of music therapy research resources, visit the AMTA's website).
"Most of the evidence is written up and documented in those types of journals," she said.
And there's the testimony of those who've seen the benefits.
"It absolutely works," Carol Miller, whose austistic 3-year-old daughter, Casey, is being treated by Peace, said. "She has difficulty with communication and socializing ... she didn't make very good eye contact initially. Abigail's been working on all these things. If you ask [Casey] a question without music, she won't answer you. With music she just does better. She's learned to take turns, make good eye contact while they're playing [music together] ... she actually sings with Abigail, whereas before she wouldn't."
Miller had this advice for parents who have autistic children: "If your child seems to really enjoy music and it's something that can keep their attention, it's worth a try to give this kind of therapy a chance. I've seen quicker progress with this therapy than with any other kind we've tried. She just learns better through music."
Mirror Staff Writer Jimmy Mincin is at 946-7460.