From overcoming depression and stress to improving communication skills, music has several therapeutic uses

As I wrap up a presentation for the next day, I become aware of music drifting in through the open window. Ram, my elderly neighbour, is at it again. I listen to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 32, at least five times a day! I smile to myself; the music is certainly keeping him happy. Ram had slipped into a deep depression since his wife and companion of 50 years passed away. The counsellor, whom the family consulted, suggested music as therapy. Music is known to have therapeutic effects on individuals. It not only provides pleasure but also modifies behaviour. The family knew of Ram’s passion for western instrumental music. They encouraged him to listen to it and Ram became calmer and more accessible.

Music, as therapy, has been used for ages to promote wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, enhance memory and improve communication. If we care to reflect, each one of us, at some time or the other, has observed how professionals use music to create an atmosphere of calm and peace so that they can work better. I remember, way back in the 70s I had been to Dr. Dastoor, a renowned ophthalmologist in Mumbai. And I noticed with amazement that after showing me my seat, the elderly doctor walked up to the table to switch on the tape recorder. Listening to his favourite music, he gave my eyes full attention! And here in Hyderabad, it is Doctor Laxmi Rathnam, a gynaecologist, obstetrician and endoscopy surgeon, who listens to Hindi and Telugu melodies during surgeries and delivering babies! She finds music relaxing. What is remarkable is that she gives the client an option to choose!

Also, teaching at the special school for those with cerebral palsy, I remember how the children enjoyed the music sessions. One memory stands out.

Seven-year-old Raju was a restless soul; words spoken to him meant nothing to him. He was in a world of his own. He could not be confined to his classroom. It was impossible to teach him as he was in and out of every classroom in the school. In fact, all the teachers and students got so accustomed to his behaviour that no one was distracted when he entered the classroom. But there was a drastic change in his behaviour when he was exposed to music.

Music therapist, Situ Buhler, a soprano singer herself, brought some order into his life. She sat him on a chair in the corner of a room and placed a table in front to restrict his movement. When the child was still he seemed to notice more things and hear better. Over a period of time, he was able to sit for longer spells, started responding to his name and even maintained eye contact with the therapist. It was then that we teachers could make an intervention. Music therapy helps establish relationships between the therapist and individual. These relationships are structured and adapted through music to create a positive environment for successful growth.

Music has a universal ability to tap into our deepest emotions says, music therapist Rajam Shankar. Music therapy has an upbeat effect on the behaviour of children, particularly with inattentive behaviour. Rhythm and repetition have always been key components of Rajam’s music. It allows the listener to think meditatively, she says. According to her, music can also be used to establish contact and teach interactive skills to autistic individuals.

Autism primarily affects the areas of communication, social skills, thought and behaviour. These challenges make it difficult for them to be educated in mainstream schools and also to participate in activities with peers. It is a known that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are unable to process emotional information from voices and faces. Then, is it possible for them to recognise emotion in music?

Music therapy is shown to be an effective intervention for recognition of emotions says audiologist and speech pathologist, Pushpa Srinivasan. She explains that brain has the ability to process waves of different frequencies — alpha, beta, theta and delta. These waves can be induced by specific types of music. Such music produces changes in the brain. A pitch or frequency provides the basis for recognition of emotions such as happiness and sadness in the auditory domain. This hypothesis makes it clear why individuals with autism, lacking the ability to perceive and interpret cues within the social domain, are still able to process effect from music. Music gives them a release — a release from self.

The goal of any music therapy session as well as the method of getting there will vary from person to person. It often takes some experimenting to figure out what an individual’s needs are and how best to meet them.

The writer is a Remedial Educator. Email her at:


Your attention, pleaseSeptember 15, 2013