By Anushka De
CFO, Tune of Life
Music therapy, according to Board Certified Music Therapist Laura Fonseca, is “a clinical and evidence based use of music to help individuals achieve non music goals”. These goals include the advancement of cognitive, social-emotional and motor skills, such as the ability to express oneself and effectively use one’s voice. Music is processed by the brain globally – different parts of the brain process rhythm, harmony and melody. Music therapy utilizes the brain’s various responses to different aspects of music to improve individuals’ quality of life.
“[Studies] have shown that when you're making music with other people and when you're listening to music, certain neurotransmitters are being fired. Some of those [include] oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine, [which are] mood enhancers or [hormones] that relax us,” Fonseca said.
Music is processed globally by the brain, which allows music therapists to help clients with a diverse set of goals
The effects of music on the brain have been studied extensively throughout time. Music has permeated human cultures across the globe since the beginning of time and the impacts that listening to music has on people’s intelligence, mood, and motor skills have been studied extensively. According to a paper discussing the processes of listening to music by MaryAnn H. Gulyas, the key to understanding the effect of listening to music on the brain is understanding where the information from listening to music is sent in the brain. When listening to music, the brain processes new information through the thalamus, the brain’s “receiving station”. This information is then sent to various other parts of the brain, including the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions, the hypothalamus, a region of the brain that regulates hormones, and to various neurons throughout the brain. Certain receptors in the neurons receive this information and stimulate the parts of the brain that produce various endorphins, including Dopamine, Serotonin, and Oxytocin.
Because so many parts of the brain receive information when listening to music – from the amygdala which controls emotion to the cortex, which plays a key role in language and perception – listening to music can be an extremely versatile and dynamic method of treatment. Music therapists like Fonseca must assess and adapt their treatment plans based on each client’s needs and goals. One of the eight standards of practice for clinical music therapists established by the American Music Therapy Association is assessment, which includes the evaluation not only of the client’s goals and music tastes, but also of their “culture, race, ethnicity, language, religion/spirituality, socioeconomic status, family experiences, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and social organizations”. In doing so, music therapists are able to create a holistic image of their client and customize a treatment plan best suited for their client’s needs.
Based on the results of their evaluation, music therapists will decide to employ a variety of techniques to address the individual’s specific needs. These techniques can range from listening to prerecorded music to singing, and utilize individuals’ responses to music to stimulate improvements in their verbal, cognitive, and social-emotional skills. One of the techniques Fonseca uses with a client with Broca’s Aphasia, an injury to the brain that results in patients having intact cognitive skill but being unable to communicate their thoughts, is singing and having her patients fill in the words to popular songs.
“We can actually use music and singing to help [patients] to regain that speech,” said Fonesca. “I would assess [their needs] by first asking them a question like ‘What is your name?’ and seeing how quickly they can respond, if they have trouble responding or if there's frustration involved when they're trying to answer the question. That is [how] I see if music therapy is going to be a good fit for them.”
A diagram of how different aspects and expressions of music, such as rhythm or singing, can effect various skills such as speech
Another technique Fonseca uses is playing a song to a patient on the guitar who has difficulty sitting still and engaging with a computer screen for extended periods of time. She explains that to an outsider, this technique may seem ineffective, but in reality, it soothes the patient and assists with stress management.
“This patient has a really hard time sitting in one place for a certain amount of time. We're trying to [stimulate] that engagement to help them to be able to relax their body when they're sitting in front of a computer, as well as giving them the opportunity to move their body when they have different sensory needs,” Fonseca said. “We are helping give them the opportunity to ask for the chance to move their body in a way that is safe and appropriate while still being kind of present in a computer space.”
Despite being extremely effective and having a vast number of applications, from the treatment of Alzheimer’s patients to eating disorders, music therapy remains a widely misunderstood field of science. Fonseca explains that when introducing herself and her career to a stranger, people often have negative impressions associated with music therapy.
“[When] a lot of people hear music therapy, they think that it's something very different than what it is. They often feel like it sounds, for lack of a better word like ‘woo-woo’,” Fonseca said. “I think when I explain [music therapy] to people and the families that we work with who see that what we do, I think they are excited and they understand what [music therapy] is, but I think the biggest challenge of [being a music therapist] is just that people don't know what it is. And if you don't know what it is, then you're less likely to try it.”
Ironically, Fonseca’s favorite part about being a music therapist goes hand in hand with the biggest challenge she faces – she feels immense satisfaction from raising awareness about the advantages of music therapy and providing individuals with access to music therapy services.
“I think just working with my clients individually and in groups and having that opportunity to see how impactful using music in this way is for them and how it really is life changing,” Fonseca said. “ I mean that's why I get up in the morning.”
Laura Fonseca, MT-BC is a Board Certified Music Therapist who received her B.A. in Music Therapy from Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA with a minor in psychology. She is currently working to obtain her M.M. in Music Therapy from Colorado State University. Laura is primarily a percussionist, vocalist, and guitar player. She completed her clinical internship at NeuroRhythm Music Therapy Services in Colorado Springs, CO. Laura has primarily worked with clients with neurologic impairment and neurodevelopment disabilities in a variety of settings including: education, acute rehab, assisted living, and private practice. Outside of her music therapy work, Laura has recorded as a singer/songwriter and performed as a vocalist for independent video games and films.
At Tune of Life, we are dedicated to combating the challenge that music therapist’s like Fonseca face everyday – music therapy remains a widely unknown method of treatment, and as a result, it remains inaccessible to the people who can benefit most from it. We are increasing our community’s awareness about music therapy in a variety of ways, from recruiting teenage volunteers who are passionate about music to play music for seniors to creating a podcast that discusses the various aspects and genres of music. In coming months we hope to continue to further positively impact our community by hosting an online concert, finishing our app Legato which will serve as a mobile music therapy hub, recruiting volunteers passionate about music from a diverse set of cultures, and continuing to post information about music therapy on our website. Feel free to contact us at email@example.com or learn more about our organization at https://tuneoflife.org/.