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We do not hear much about music therapy for depression, although studies showing it effectively relieves depressive symptoms have been done.
Music therapy involves a trained music therapist engaging in improvisational music-making with a client. It seems that the “active doing” of playing musical instruments is healing for aesthetic, physical, and relational reasons.
In psychotherapy, the therapist listens to the client’s words and responds verbally. A music therapist listens to the musical sounds made by the client and responds to them musically. It is a conversation in sound and rhythm that may lead to insight and some verbal discussion.
This aesthetic dynamic engages clients at an instinctive level and supports them in taking risks—expressing themselves differently. For instance, the therapist might validate a client’s tentative melody fragment by creating a bass line under it. This may encourage the client to risk developing the melody further.
To facilitate connection and self exploration, music therapy requires purposeful physical movement. It is known that physical activity helps relieve depression, but the therapeutic value of music and movement goes even deeper.
An experience of being drawn in by music, and responding to it with movement, connects us to our physical nature. Even unmotivated people can find themselves tapping a finger or foot to a snappy tune. Music entrains and enlivens us. Moving to it is a natural human phenomenon.
Making music also allows us to experience our physical self with other physical selves. The coordinated motions between two or more music makers creates a meaningful physical encounter in the present moment, and establishes community.
It is possible we are hard-wired to communicate musically in order to establish community. Think about the earliest interactions between parents and newborns. The combination of gestures and sounds typically used is a musical vocabulary connecting adult and child. An absence of this musical parent-baby speech has a negative developmental impact on children.
In this relational sense, a musical therapist can be viewed in a parental role, nurturing the client’s self discovery and self expression through musical vocabulary—cultivating the experience of pleasure and meaning. However, it is the music itself - melodies, rhythms, and harmonies - that engages people where words might fail.
Photo credit: Boston Public Library
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