Music Therapy: A Peaceful Revolution

You’ll be in trouble with the law if you play your music too loudly in Rochester, New
York. Anyone found violating local and state noise ordinances by means of overly
loud “boom boxes,” stereos, motorcycles, automobiles or loud partying will be

New York City has also begun to oppose the bombardment of noise. Its Department
of Environmental Protection has a Quality of Life Hotline. 70% of the calls received
concern noise. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has established a Council on the
Environment. There is a citywide group (with a somewhat unfortunate acronym)
called Friends Against Noisy New York. On April 25th, there were observances of
International Noise Awareness Day. The mayor also established Operation Silent
Night, a citywide quality of life initiative to combat loud and excessive noise in New
York City.

It’s not that the state of New York is less tolerant than the rest of us. It’s that
they’ve realized something a lot of communities don’t know yet.

We all know that we’re exposed to more excessive noise today than at any other
time in history. Modern life can seem like an ongoing struggle to rise above the din.
Home life fills our ears with barking dogs, air conditioning units, televisions, boom
boxes and the kitchen vent-a-hood. When we leave the house or office, we yell to
be heard over construction projects, car alarms, traffic and other people’s music.
The list goes on and on. The US Census Bureau has reported that noise is
Americans’ top complaint about their neighborhoods and their main reason for
wanting to move.

What New Yorkers have found and the rest of us need to know is that noise
pollution is more than just annoying; It can be dangerous. One Rochester police
officer explains that when blasting music in neighborhoods goes unchecked, it
indicates that respect is not required. “This type of environment is friendly to other,
more serious types of crimes,” he says. That’s why police officers and neighborhood
residents have decided to crack down on excessive noise in their community. Police
and concerned citizens have been walking the streets together, knocking on the
doors of noisy neighbors and warning them about possible fines and legal action.

Noise is not only a health issue for communities, but also for individuals. Research
has shown dramatic physiological effects from exposure to excessive noise. In
addition to its damage to the ears, Dr. Luther Terry, former U.S. Surgeon General
identifies a host of other negative health effects due to noise. A partial list includes
cardiovascular constriction, elevated blood pressure, increased heart rate, more
labored breathing, measurable changes in skin resistance and skeletal-muscle
tension, digestive system changes, glandular activity that alters the chemical
content of blood and urine, vestibular effects, balance sense effect and changes in
brain chemistry. It bears repeating that this is just a partial list. Terry details the
negative effect of noise on fetal development, as well.

The Surgeon General echoes the voices of many health professionals. Researchers
have found that after extended exposure to high noise such as aircraft flyovers or
workplace noise, blood pressure rises as much as 30%. Increasing the negative
impact is the fact that blood pressure stays at that elevated level for a significant
period after the exposure ends. So if you’re close enough to a landing plane that
your blood pressure rises, it stays up and affects your body long after the airplane
noise is gone.

You don’t have to live near an airport to be affected by traffic. Even noise that we
might consider moderate has its effect. A German study found that those living on
busy streets were 20% more likely to have a heart attack than those living on a quiet

Studies have also linked learning problems to noise. It affects the ability of children
to learn to speak, to read, and to acquire knowledge in schools. These effects have
been documented near airports, train tracks and major roadways. The inability to
hear and understand all that a teacher is saying can translate to poor grades and
could even lead to a higher dropout rate in schools.

Moreover, noise pollution has impact on the behavior of both children and adults.
One study looked at how passers-by responded to a person in need in the presence
of noise. While a noisy lawn mower roared nearby, a woman with a broken arm
dropped some books and tried to pick them up. No one stopped to help her. When
the lawnmower was turned off and the scene repeated, several people stopped to
help her retrieve her books.

With all that being said, it’s no wonder that Americans have more problems with
sleeping, concentrating and dealing with stress in our noise-polluted environment.
Fortunately, there is more to sound than the negative effects of noise. The opposite
of noise is music. The ability of music to repair and encourage health and harmony
is as powerful as noise’s ability to destroy them. So powerful, in fact, that there is an
entire field called music therapy.

The full benefits of music therapy are still being studied, but we know of quite a few
already. Studies in mental health, for example, have shown that music therapy is
effective in relieving anxiety and stress, promoting relaxation and treating
depression. Music therapy allows people with emotional problems to explore
feelings, make positive changes in mood, practice problem solving, and resolve
conflicts. It has been used successfully by mental health institutions during group
therapy sessions.

The healing effects of music therapy are not limited to mental health. They have
been observed in hospitalized patients with burns, heart disease, diabetes and
cancer. As a complement to rehabilitation care, music therapy seems to strengthen
communication and physical coordination skills, as it improves the physical and
mental functioning of those with neurological disabilities or developmental
disorders. Those with learning, speech and hearing problems may also find music
therapy helpful.

Music therapy reduces the need for medication during childbirth and complements
the use of anesthesia during surgery and dental work, especially when children
undergo medical and surgical procedures. It is useful in newborn care of premature
infants. Aside from these acute situations, music therapy helps ease chronic pain.

Music therapy can also improve the quality of life of terminally ill patients and
enhance the well-being of the elderly, including those suffering from Alzheimer’s
disease and other forms of dementia. It has been used to complement the treatment
of AIDS, stroke, Parkinson’s and cancer. At the same time, music therapy is useful in
the support of the families and caregivers of such patients.

Most of the reviews published on the subject have been published by the American
Music Therapy Association. The broad applications of this tool warrant more formal
reviews. We still don’t know just how many conditions could be helped by music
therapy. Still, changes are that you could enhance your mental and physical health
with music therapy.

If you consult a music therapist for a particular condition, the therapist will first talk
to you about your symptoms and needs. In addition, the therapist will assess your
emotional well-being, physical health, social functioning, communication abilities
and cognitive skills. Using this information, your therapist will design an appropriate
treatment plan that would probably include playing and listening to music,
analyzing lyrics, composing songs, improvising and/or using rhythmic movement.

During your regular sessions, the therapist may participate in these activities with
you or simply guide you. You may also be encouraged to talk about the images or
feelings that are evoked by the music. You and your therapist will select the music
used for your therapy according to your needs and tastes. You can choose any kind
of music, from classical or new age to jazz or rock. You do not need previous
musical experience nor any musical ability to benefit from music therapy.

Some music therapy is conducted in a group setting. You might perform music with
others who have the same condition as you, or you may just interact and relax with
others as music plays in the background. If you are in the hospital for surgery or to
give birth, your music therapy might simply entail listening to your favorite songs to
help you relax and reduce pain.

As you may have guessed by now, the presence of a professional is not always
required in music therapy, though you may need help in getting started. Westerners
are only beginning to use music as medicine, though it has long been used
successfully in Asia, Africa, Europe and South America. To encourage you to create
your own music therapy sessions, I will share with you the basics of my own brand
of music therapy. Take what you like and leave the rest.

When I practice music therapy, especially for relaxation, the first thing I do is to find
a calming environment, where I won’t be disturbed or interrupted. Next, I light
incense or a scented candle, as I find that aromatherapy helps to calm my body.

Next, I choose the music, which becomes easier the more you learn about your
body’s response to different kinds of music. I then sit on the floor, in an upright
position with my legs crossed. I breathe deeply, inhaling and exhaling very slowly
through my nose.

As the music plays, I listen intently to the instruments as if the players were right
there in the room playing to me. Often I position myself directly in front of the
speaker, so I can feel the vibrations as well as hear the music being played. Some
people use headphones. This is fine, but I recommend you feel the sound coming
into your body, and not just into your head.

Visualize the sound waves coming from the speakers and going through you. Not
only should you position yourself physically to catch the sound energy in your body,
but you should also focus your mind. Focus on where you want the healing
vibrations to go. Listen as you visualize the sound waves beaming through your
body and replenishing your cells, tissues, and internal organs.

As you practice music therapy you will develop the method that works best for you.
Once you know how your body responds to certain instruments, timbres, and
musical styles, you can design sessions in the sequence you find most beneficial to

Ideally, you practice music therapy for at least 30 minutes to an hour per day,
although even a 20-minute daily session would yield positive results. It can take 10
minutes just for your mind to unwind, so I recommend 30-40 minute sessions.

Those are the basics. As you can gather from all of the above, music therapy can be
as involved or as simple as the situation warrants. The main thing is just to get
started. In this world of noise pollution, practicing music therapy may well be the
way to start your own peaceful revolution!


American Academy of Audiology (Consumer guides)

World Council on Hearing Health (In the news)

Friends Against Noisy New York (2005 Newsletter)
National Campaign for Hearing Health