Music as a Tool in Daily Life

One of the first questions I ask new clients is, “how do you use music?”

Usually, people respond by saying they listen to music in the car, or perhaps they might use music during exercise or while cleaning. Many people use music as a sort of back drop or backing track, if you will, as they go about daily life. Some people use music consciously to change mood states, to increase motivation or to feel more relaxed.

Most people don’t think of music as a tool.

What could be easier in your daily life? Could you benefit from better sleep? Do you need a little extra “oomph” to get in the zone for a good run? Are you uncomfortable with or unable to express yourself verbally? Perhaps you or a loved one struggles with anxiety, and the term “relaxation exercise” or “meditation” sends you into a full-blown panic attack.

Sometimes, I see people choosing good music, with great intentions . . . but it’s not the right music. For example, a good running playlist should feature songs at the right tempo. Music for sleep should remain at a consistent volume, with little variation in tempo, unlike much symphonic music which features dynamic contrasts in tempo and loudness. Variations in music stimulate the mind and grab attention. Music can be used to regulate and modulate physical and emotional states.

Music affects people at a physiological level, reaches into the emotional part of the brain, and stimulates memories. The body naturally entrains with the rhythm in music (try listening to a piece of music while walking and NOT walking at that tempo!), and this includes your heart and respiration rates. As you breathe more deeply and your body relaxes, oxygen saturation increases and cortisol (a stress hormone) decreases. Listening to music can decrease the perception of pain. While exercising, perceived exertion decreases while listening to music. But the music must be up to the task and it must be central to the experience, and the listener engaged and present with the music.

Instead of using music as the background to your daily activities, try centering the music within the experience; focusing mindfully on the music gets the best results. Many people will benefit from multi-sensory engagement with the music, such as noticing where you feel the music in your body, or tapping along rhythmically.

Do you have a loved one who is unable to communicate their musical preferences? Sometimes, families may unknowingly choose music that is distressing or non-preferred for a loved one who is unable to express their discomfort, or unaware of the impact the music is having on their mood or mental state. It can be more difficult for trained musicians to use music to relax; musicians might be more critical of their self-expression, or their expectations might get in the way of their usage of music for a specific purpose. Music therapists are trained to assess musical preference and engage people of all ages and abilities in therapeutic musical experiences.

Almost without exception, all people are inherently musical. Music has been a part of the human experience, in every known culture, since the beginning, and is a part of the human experience beginning at 16 weeks gestation and often not ending until death. With few exceptions (namely amusia, the very rare inability to recognize or reproduce musical tones), nearly everyone can benefit from the intentional inclusion of music in daily life.

The Magic Within the Music: What I Love About Being a Music Therapist

As if by magic, I have the privilege of getting to see the best in people in music therapy. I see the joy, the creativity, the humor, the passion, and the quirks that make people who they are. But it isn’t magic- it’s MUSIC. The glorious connection that occurs within the music, whether it’s spiritual, interpersonal, interpersonal, or any combination thereof, is palpable, purposeful, powerful, potent. It is the essence of the human potential – to express one’s true self, and to experience the range of human emotion and human expression; to feel alive.

Although people come to music therapy to feel or function better due to a struggle in life such as dementia, brain injury, depression, or anxiety, these difficulties do not define the individual. I do not look at people and see their problems; in music, I get to see their potential. They are still in there – the beautiful, unique soul rising to the occasion of personal growth, rehabilitation, or transformation. Even at the end of life or at the rock bottom of suffering – the intangible essence of music reaches deep into the person, and reveals their strengths and potential.

Within music therapy, indescribable moments of connectedness occur between the music therapist, the client, and the music. The music and the relationship developed within the music facilitate the growth, transformation, and rebuilding the client seeks and needs. These moments of attunement are a peak experience for me as a music therapist – they feed my soul, and help me to get through the more difficult aspects of my work (after all, I am often seeing people during some of their greatest struggles).

The magic of these moments of connectedness is eclipsed only by the results of the work (see the rest of this blog for the science behind the magic of music therapy). I am humbled to serve as a music therapist; I am in awe of the potency of music and the power of the human spirit.

Hemiparesis and Restoration of Motor Function in Chronic Stroke – What’s Music Therapy Got to Do With It?

March 1st is International Music Therapy Day! What a great day for a blog post!

A few months ago, I posted about music therapy in stroke rehabilitation in general. Since there are so many ways music therapy can help people recover from a stroke, I thought it might be useful to dive in to each topic in-depth, individually. Today’s focus is on the rehabilitation of Upper Extremity Hemiparesis.

What is Hemiparesis and Why Does it Matter?

Hemiparesis is weakness or inability to move (paralysis) on one side of the body, resulting from an injury to the opposite side (hemisphere) of the brain. In layman’s terms, “upper extremity” basically refers to arms.

A leading cause of functional disability in people with chronic stroke is upper extremity hemiparesis. Around 80% of stroke survivors experience acute hemiparesis, and half of these continue to experience hemiparesis long-term.

Why is music effective in retraining the brain to use an effected limb?

The brain that engages in music is changed by engaging in music,” (Thaut, 2014). Music drives neuroplasticity, improves adherence to and engagement in treatment, and utilizes cortical reorganization to create a new pathway for lost functions.

Musical tasks provide “anticipation and timing structure for movement from the external rhythmic cue and from integrating the external cue (feedforward) with the patient produced sound patterns (feedback),” (Thaut, 2014).

What does music therapy in stroke rehabilitation look like?

Imagine your physical therapy exercises to improve flexion, extension, range of motion, etc. Now imagine having the sensory feedback that playing musical instruments provides and the rhythmic cueing that is so essential in a good work-out session.

To your brain, this multisensory feedback enriches the motor experience; anytime you are having fun and enjoying something, the event is more significant neurologically. New neural pathways are built more quickly, and with less effort. This is how all humans naturally learn and re-learn. You are getting “more bang for your buck,” basically!

Translating functional arm rehabilitation movements into musical activities occurs in a neurologic music therapy technique known as Therapeutic Instrumental Musical Performance, or TIMP. To quote one research participant, TIMP was “hugely different from being asked for no apparent reason to hit the table.” (I have to admit, I had a little chuckle at that quote!

Utilizing musical cueing via dynamic, temporal, and rhythmic changes is known as Patterned Sensory Enhancement, or PSE. Just as music cues a dancer’s moves, music may also cue gross and fine movements for functional gain.

Music therapists are trained in choosing and adapting musical instruments and mallets to stimulate functional gains; we will find *something* to suit your gripping needs and capabilities, or an instrument that is the right height, or provides the right amount of feedback.

How Do I Get Started with Music Therapy for Stroke Rehabilitation?

When you’re ready to try music therapy, give us a call to schedule your assessment session. After your assessment, your board-certified music therapist will determine a treatment plan to meet your rehabilitation goals.

MindSteady Music: A Low-Cost Anxiety & Depression Reduction Program

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Pre-registration is now open for MindSteady, a live virtual music-based depression & anxiety-reduction group music therapy program. The program will offer adults of all ages an opportunity to practice music and mindfulness techniques and learn to use rhythm & music to regulate emotions and induce a physiological state of calmness. Participants will experience both passive and active techniques.

No experience necessary! There are absolutely no musical pre-requisites- all levels of musician are welcome; degree of musicianship is not an indicator of anticipated benefits from participating.

The program will require pre-registration and pre-payment. Thanks to an anonymous donor, the total cost of the program for each participant will be reduced to $100, to include all 6 group sessions.

This article offers an overview on the basics of music therapy and depression.

Please contact for more information.

Why I Decided to Become a Music Therapist: Music Therapy and Dementia

My first exposure to music therapy was in a day program for individuals with dementia. I had never imagined that I would someday become a music therapist; I thought I would play flute in a world-class symphony orchestra, but once I witnessed the power of music therapy, there was no going back.

Durin my first semester at Berklee College Music, I spent long hours in the practice rooms rehearsing flute and perfecting my technique. I loved performing, but I started to feel a calling to become a helper and to do something thatt involved more daily interaction with people. After meeting a music therapis by chance, I was invited to observe a group music therapy session in a day program for older adults witht dementia. I arrived to the day program during their lunch hour, and I felt sad to see how much support the once vibrant and capable participants needed. They required assistance with feeding, mobility, and all basic activities of daily living (ADLs). Some had lost all ability to verbally communicate or ambulate independently.

The music therapist and day program staff helped the participants over to an area with comfortable seating arranged in a semi-circle, and once everyone was in place, the magic began: people who could no longer walk were dancing, people who could no longer speak were joyfully singing songs of their youth. Bright smiles and laughter lit up dim, expressionless faces. In that moment I felt a renewed clarity of purpose and knew my fate was to recreate that moment.

After the program, I signed up to volunteer with the music therapist who worked full-time in the assisted living in the same building, then I went back to Berklee and applied to the music therapy program.

While volunteering, I observed music therapy groups and individual sessions on both the high-functioning and low-functioning dementia units. My favorite group was the songwriting group on the high-functioning unit, where the music therapist used humor, joy, structure, and acceptance to support residents in confronting the harsh realities of dementia, such as becoming increasingly forgetful and dependent upon others for basic ADLs (activities of daily living).

Music makes everything easier. I say it all the time, but it’s true: exercise, eliciting verbal phrases, memory recall, interacting with others positively, confronting difficult and painful emotions . . . the list goes on. There are a million and one ways people with dementia can benefit from music therapy, and the concept seems so obvious for me, initially it didn’t occur to me to write a blog post about it! Music therapy should be a staple in every nursing home and assisted living. Indeed, there are not enough music therapists to go around: music therapists can also serve as consultants in developing supportive music programs, or train caregivers in the safe integration of music into daily support tasks. (Care must be taken to reduce the risk of harm when providng music interventions).

Music therapy can:

Please contact me for more information about the benefits of music therapy for individuals with dementia.