The healing power of music therapy

With his elderly patient suffering from the late stages of cancer and Alzheimer's disease, the last thing music therapist Aaron Lightstoneexpected was an impromptu jam session.

So it amazed everyone when the man, a former pianist, pulled himself out of bed, sat down at a small portable keyboard, and with Lightstone on the guitar, started banging out jazz standards with near perfect recollection.

"He [and his family] were surprised he could still do that because they'd already experienced him for a long time with the dementia," says Lightstone. "So very near the end of his life his family got to re-experience him as a more functioning, well person."

Though incredible, it was far from the first time Lightstone had witnessed such minor miracles. The music therapist, who works out of the Veterans' Centre at Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital, experiences on a daily basis the powerful effect a melody can have on the emotional and physical well-being of terminally-ill individuals.

Lightstone's job is to engage patients, and sometimes their families, through music, whether through active participation — such as songwriting or singing — or by simply giving them the opportunity to close their eyes and listen to a favourite tune.

"It's varied because each individual brings his or her own attitude and experiences," he says. "Some people might be at a stage in their illness where they're still very much grieving and struggling with the losses that are facing them. Other times it's very joyful because people are older and maybe satisfied with the life they had."

Although music's healing properties have been recognized since ancient times, it wasn't until the period between both the World Wars that North Americans began using song as a therapeutic practice.

Studies have detailed how veterans suffering from traumatic war injuries show emotional, physiological and cognitive improvement when they work with a trained music therapist, singing, writing, recording and listening to songs.

More recent studies have started to shine light on music's effect on the brain: particularly how, in cases like Lightstone's jazz pianist patient, individuals suffering from dementia seem to find their ability to enjoy and appreciate music relatively unaffected.

Now, in a recently published report, Concordia University professor Sandi Curtis has discovered a direct correlation between music therapy and physical pain relief.

Curtis paired a therapist with a musician from a professional symphony orchestra, and had the two engage musically with individuals in the palliative care unit at a regional hospital.

The patients received anywhere between 15 to 60 minutes of music therapy, with their experiences ranging from songwriting, music-centered imagery and relaxation, to simple listening.

Before and after their session, patients were asked to report their feelings on a variety of physical and psychological variables ——including pain relief, relaxation, quality of life and positive mood — and rate them on a scale of one to five.

Data analysis collected after the trial period showed a notable improvement across the board, with patients almost unanimously expressing an improvement across all four variables. It's a result that confirmed what Curtis had already experienced countless times during her own work as a music therapist.

"The basic nature of music has profound impact on our emotions. It causes us to have an emotional response, physical response, an intellectual response and a spiritual response, and it does all of them at the same time. That's what makes music such a profoundly effective way of assisting people," she says.

Where traditional medication sometimes fails, she believes music can provide a natural respite from physical pain. "For a lot of people, it's the fear of death, the anxiety that makes you tense up and tighten your muscles, [which] only exacerbates the pain. It's a vicious circle," says Curtis. "Music takes place in time, so that distraction can engage them practically."

Because music has the ability to alleviate physical pain, patients are often able to ease off their medications. "You want them to be pain-free, but not groggy. You want their last moments of life to be as full and as rich as they can be," she says.

In addition to pain relief, a personally meaningful song, such as a childhood favourite or a religious hymn, can provide incalculable comfort in those final moments. And it's during those moments that Lightstone fully appreciates the impact of what he does.

"I like feeling that it's such a poignant moment when you're helping people cope with their death — because it's the only truly universal human experience."

(Photo credit: Ben Curtis/AP photo via CP)