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Music therapy hits the right notes for better health

Woman plays piano with child
Music therapist Aniek Janssen plays piano while a child beats a drum.

We’ve always known that music can soothe the soul, but research shows it can improve your overall health too.

Since it became a registered profession in Australia in the 1970s, music therapy has been instrumental in improving the physical recovery and mental wellbeing of countless patients.

The evidence-based practice has become a fixture of many multi-disciplinary clinical teams in hospitals and healthcare centres across the country.

What is music therapy and how does it work?

Broadly, music therapy is the professional use of music to help individuals, groups, families and communities improve their mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health.

Regardless of whether the primary instrument is voice, piano, guitar or percussion, at the heart of music therapy is the relationship between the patient, the therapist and the music.

Drawing on an extensive body of research, practitioners first assess patients to identify their abilities and needs so they can tailor programs.

Therapy sessions may incorporate several specific techniques including:

  • singing
  • song-writing
  • listening to music
  • relaxation
  • playing instruments
  • drum circles
  • lyric analysis
  • improvisation
  • therapeutic performances
  • structured group sessions
  • multimodal stimulation and
  • developmental stimulation.

Treatments are based on the patient’s musical preferences and prior musical experience is not necessary for therapy to be effective.

How does music therapy help?

Clinical music therapy has proven beneficial for patients who are:

  • chronically ill
  • experiencing developmental delay
  • isolated or bed-bound
  • anxious or depressed
  • physically impaired
  • overcoming trauma.

It is particularly helpful in treating children.

In the early stages of their stay in hospital, music therapy can help them relax more, sleep better, increase their level of alertness, and help them cope with the hospital environment.

Techniques such as active music-making enable young patients to express their emotions.

During sessions, children can convey their anger, frustrations, fear and other feelings in a fun and acceptable way by banging drums, plucking guitar strings and singing loudly.

They may also find the music comforting, nurturing and calming, especially songs that are familiar and remind them of family and home.

Music therapy is used during medical procedures such as the administration of needles and removal of cannulas because listening to or playing music may help reduce the perception of pain.

A music therapist plays guitar for a child and another woman in hospital

Registered music therapist Cassandra Huntley uses music to switch on the “relaxation response” in child patients at SCUH.

“When music therapy is used, they often feel a sense of calm and become less anxious,” Ms Huntley says.

“It can help manage the child’s fear, stress and experience of pain, by tapping into the intrinsic qualities of music such as rhythm, tempo, dynamics and repetition.”

“Music is a dynamic way in which to engage children,” Ms Huntley says.

“Live music can be altered so it provides an immediate response to the child’s needs.

“When I sing and play my guitar during a procedure, I adjust the tempo of the music, quietening and slowing down the song to help slow down the child’s respiration.

“I will utilise the predictability of musical repetition of lyrical phrases and chordal patterns to provide familiarity.

“I have written procedural songs with children to create a sense of ownership of the procedural experience.”

“Everyone in the room feels the benefits – the child, the parent or carer, the nursing staff, the paediatrician, and the anaesthetist.

“They are all not just on the same page – they’re literally singing the same song!”

In an environment where children may otherwise feel powerless and uncertain, music therapy gives them some control; they make decisions about the song, how it’s played and the instruments used.

For example, a clinician may give them an injection at a particular point in a song when the child is in control of the music.

In music therapy groups, children will see others in similar situations, helping them understand their own experience and feel normal.

Two boys play music instruments

Music therapy in Queensland’s public hospitals

Children’s Hospital Queensland’s clinical lead music therapist, Dr Jeanette Kennelly, is a pioneer of the practice in Queensland’s public health system.

Since becoming the first full-time music therapist at Royal Children’s Hospital in 1995, Dr Kennelly has helped the profession evolve to become a highly-regarded service among clinicians, patients and their families.

“Over time, music therapy services expanded at Royal Children’s, beginning initially within burns and oncology, followed by general medical and surgical wards and rehabilitation.

“Now music therapy services have expanded to all departments throughout the hospital.”

Dr Kennelly says music therapy is often misunderstood; it’s a targeted therapeutic treatment that involves far more than listening to or playing music.

“On first observation, it might appear as though the music therapist is just having a jam with the patient,” she says.

“However, the registered music therapist is trained in the methods and applications of how to use music to facilitate therapeutic change.

“Music therapy is an evidence-based health practice and profession that can produce positive results for the patient.”

Dr Kennelly says music therapy provides many clinical benefits including: pain management; stress and anxiety relief; enhanced communication; physical rehabilitation; mood management; improved quality of life; and supportive strategies for maintaining developmental skills.

“Music is often something that children can relate to, regardless their age,” she says.

“When they come to hospital, they and their families often want to connect with something that is familiar, safe and supportive in order to help manage any stress and anxieties.

“The music, whether in the form of a familiar song or discussion about music preferences, helps to initially connect the child and family with the music therapist and from that point, the therapeutic relationships and potential for therapeutic change can take place.

“Relationship building and the development of trust and rapport is an important part of the music therapy process, regardless the context in takes place within.”

Music therapy is also a key treatment technique used at the POSSUM (Paediatric Outpatient Sedation Support Under Multi-disciplinary) Clinic at Sunshine Coast University Hospital (SCUH).

Who can practice music therapy?

Only music therapists accredited with the Australian Music Therapy Association, the profession’s peak national body, can practice in Queensland’s public health facilities.

Registered music therapists are proficient musicians, have specialised postgraduate university qualifications, and undergo continuous professional development to ensure their skills are up-to-date.

There are almost 700 music therapists nationwide and all are bound by the Association’s professional standards and code of ethics.

For more information on music therapy in Queensland public hospitals, visit Children’s Health Queensland.

Last updated: 22 February 2019