Dr. Debasish Mridha once said that "music can heal the wounds that medicine can't touch." If this is true, then music therapy can provide the healing balm to soothe a troubled soul.
Many people have experienced better emotional well-being from their relationships with music. Instinctively we know how good it feels to listen to a beautiful aria or dance the night away at a rock concert. Music therapy takes this natural human passion for music and extends it to therapy with a qualified board-certified practitioner to help clients address their needs.
The goals of music therapy are diverse and depend on the individual circumstances of each client. Music therapy can be used to help treat clinically diagnosed conditions such as anxiety and depression, support growth in developmental areas like communication and social interaction and address executive functioning issues such as attention, learning, memory and concentration. Research supports that music therapy can even help manage stress, alleviate pain and improve physical rehabilitation.
Music therapy has been an established health profession in the United States since the 1950s and has flourished internationally as well.
According to Emily Ross, a local board-certified music therapist with 18 years of experience and a master's degree in counseling psychology, "Music therapy is the use of music within a therapeutic relationship to work towards non-musical goals." Ross continues, "The therapeutic relationship is an important piece of that definition. To call it music therapy we want it to be with a professionally-trained musical therapist."
Not just anyone can claim this job title. To become board-certified, music therapists need to graduate from a four-year music therapy degree program, pass a four-hour national exam and complete 1200 hours of supervised clinical practice in various field settings, such as hospitals, schools and older adult living facilities.
A native Oregonian born and raised in Eugene, Ross began her career as a public-school music teacher for kindergarten through 12th grades in a very small, rural district in Oregon, before leaving to join the Peace Corps. While volunteering in Kyrgyzstan, she brought her guitar and discovered just how deeply she could connect with others through music. After returning home, she decided to enroll in graduate school to pursue a career in music therapy.
This past summer, Ross helped launch a new music therapy program for people ages three and up in Central Oregon at the Cascade School of Music. She currently splits her time between CSM and her private practice, HoofnHorn Music Therapy Studio in Portland.
“My favorite thing is that when someone doesn’t feel like talking, we don’t have to. We can go right into the music."
According to Ross, the history of music therapy as a profession can be traced back to World War II. After the war, musicians were sent to Veterans Affairs hospitals to work with shell-shocked veterans who were emotionally shut down from the war experience, but the musicians were ill-equipped to handle the flood of emotions that arose during their musical performances.
"People have been using music for healing forever," says Ross; back in the 1940s they thought: "if we could train our musicians to have skills in psychology, then they could know what they're bringing, because music is so beneficial, but it can do harm. People can be triggered by music, people can be offended by music...and so we need people to bring it with intention and also know how to help the person process if stuff comes up."
Sometimes, individuals don't have the words to speak their innermost feelings or the communication skills to convey their needs. That's where music therapy comes in. As Hans Christian Andersen once said, "Where words fail, music speaks." (Ross has this quote engraved in wood hanging in her studio.)
"My favorite thing is that when someone doesn't feel like talking, we don't have to. We can go right into the music. There are so many ways to work nonverbally, whether it's just pure musical expression and we're done, or musical expression and then processing," says Ross.
And with clients whose language skills are just emerging, music can be a gentle way to practice verbalizing through singing.
According to the CSM website, a typical music therapy session with Ross might include, "music-making such as singing or improvising on instruments. It might include listening to songs and talking about the lyrics or writing new lyrics to familiar songs. It might include sensory experiences such as movement, body percussion, or 'Brain Dance.' Or it might include singing a song-picture-book together or participating in music-assisted relaxation."
In that aim, music therapy can support neurodiverse children with developmental disabilities, autism spectrum disorders and other learning differences.
"I had a wonderful experience in the Portland Public Schools several years ago where we did a pilot program and I brought in counting songs," shares Ross. "There were kids who had been on IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) for five years who had never mastered one through five, and they did it once we put it to music. Music stimulates other parts of the brain, where if something is not clicking and we add music, it might do a work-around. We can't promise it will, but there are these different things we can try and now this growth in the brain starts to happen."
It may be surprising to learn that no prior musical skills are required to participate. Since the whole point of music therapy is to work toward nonmusical goals, participants don't need to know how to sing or play a musical instrument.
"Everyone likes different kinds of music and the music we use in music therapy is what the participant prefers," says Ross. "It's not like, oh, Mozart for you! If you like folk music, we do folk music. If you like Peppa the Pig, we do Peppa the Pig."
To learn more, visit the Cascade School of Music website at cascadeschoolofmusic.org music-therapy