Music Therapy: What is it? Why should you know about it?

FrannieCihunka

For most people, music is a part of their everyday life. From the radio to TV shows to classrooms, music is found everywhere. But how many people know music can be used as a form of therapy? Music therapy is an area of therapy that uses music to help various patients for many different reasons. Board-certified music therapists can conduct group or individual sessions to use music to achieve their clients’ goals and create a treatment plan. Marian alumna, Class of ‘96, Colleen Bahle, aunt of current students Ryan Sully ‘22 and Grace Sparwasser ‘24, has been a music therapist for 20 years with a current focus on mental health.

“Each music therapy session is different depending on the population with whom we are working,” Bahle said. “Music therapists work with children and adults with disabilities, autistic people, people living with Alzheimer’s, mental health issues…basically any population that you can think of there are music therapists involved, somewhere in the world!” 

Emily Wadhams is a local music therapist and owner of Omaha Music Therapy. “I think music therapy is important because I think that a lot of people do not respond as well to traditional therapies, and music can allow them to be successful in a way that traditional therapy may not,” Wadhams said. “Music is one of a few things in our world that actually activates all parts of the brain when it is used. The whole brain lights up under the MRI machine, so we know that sometimes music can reach pieces of the brain that other things can’t.” Applied music interventions have been shown to improve memory and motor function as well as enhance emotional processing and creative problem solving, making music therapy a versatile and powerful tool to improve the daily lives of those afflicted with almost any illness or issue. 

Sessions with clients are individualized depending on the client’s disability or disease and on what they need that particular day. Both Bahle and Wadhams can do group or individual sessions, but that doesn’t mean their sessions are the same. Every activity serves a different purpose which is wholly dependent on its patient. 

Bahle’s sessions usually start out with a meditation to help ground her patients. “I started using this method a few years ago because a very large portion of our approach at the clinic is getting clients out of their negative or ruminating thoughts and learning to be in the moment.” Bahle follows the meditation by asking her clients what they experience during the meditation or having a mental check-in. Based on their responses, she chooses the treatment or intervention of the day. Treatment can be improvising on instruments, singing songs together or emotionally analyzing songs picked by her or her clients. 

“We almost always talk about what they were feeling or thoughts they had during the intervention,” Bahle said. “I might lead the discussion in what we call ‘resource oriented’ questioning. It basically helps them turn their attention to what tools they used to get through the situation, or what surprised them about themselves while playing.” If her clients are feeling emotionally overwhelmed, she changes course. “On these days I structure the group and pull into my neurologic music therapy background, using interventions that I know will activate their frontal lobe (making them concentrate and make decisions, but not about their current problems).” However, Bahle’s sessions focus on mental health improvement, so this routine would be different for a different patient. Still, all music therapists need a general knowledge of psychology to help their patients.

Although music therapy may seem like a group of people singing or playing instruments, maybe laughing or even dancing, there is much more going on underneath the surface. While Bahle is currently focused on mental health, Wadhams works with many populations, from Alzheimer’s patients and hospice to people with disabilities. “I think one of the best parts of my job is that people go, ‘I don’t understand how this is doing anything,’ and I’m like, well, let me tell you what we’re doing! We’re working on fine motor skills and we’re working on decision making and impulse control, we’re working on socialization, improving quality of life and memory recall and all these things all wrapped up into one tiny little nugget of time.” 

Molly Fisher ’16, daughter of counselor Mrs. Joanne Fisher, has her undergraduate in music and is currently seeking her master’s degree in music therapy. Fisher interned with Hillcrest Hospice and traveled to hospice houses around the state to provide relief and comfort to those individuals. She got to see firsthand the psychological effect music can have. “There was this woman who was in her final few days and her husband had joined us for the session. I was singing James Taylor because she was a big James Taylor fan. She had very severe dementia, so she did not recognize her husband. Her husband actually started singing with me and, for a moment, she looked up and she grabbed her husband’s hand and there was a moment where it seemed like she recognized what was going on. That was definitely a moment for me where I was like, ‘Okay, this is worth it.’  It was sort of her saying goodbye, I think.” Feats like this happen every day in the life of a music therapist.  These therapists get to use music to make changes in their patients’ lives. 

For any aspiring music therapists at Marian, both Wadhams and Bahle recommend learning and practicing your instrument, researching the field and volunteering. “Music doesn’t need to be involved!” said Bahle. “Just getting to know different kinds of people and their strengths as well as their needs is something that you can’t learn from a book. Even volunteering to hang out with the Sisters next door is a great first step.” 

As for the future of music therapy, both the music therapists and Fisher, who is working toward her degree, are hoping the field will be more widely- recognized and have the credibility it deserves. “I would just like to see music therapy be more widely-recognized and respected,” said Wadhams. “Music therapy is an allied health profession recognized by the federal government, and yet most people say, ‘Playing a piano? You need a degree for that?’ Before I die, I would love to be able to say ‘I’m a music therapist’ and have people know what that means.”

There is no such thing as a “typical” music therapy session because each time the treatment is wholly dependent on the client’s needs that day. The diversity of musical treatments is what allows this field to grow in so many areas and help so many different people. Music therapy is a continually expanding field as the world continues to learn more about the brain and music’s effect on it. Music has an effect on humans every single day and it can be a powerful and helpful tool to help the psychologically and physically afflicted. Music therapy is beginning its momentum to one of the most important and effective forms of treatment around the world, and its importance will only continue to grow.

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