Using Music to Heal Body and Soul

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Using Music to Heal Body and Soul

It's a Therapy That Dates to Ancient Times

by Kim Hoo-ran

Most people have probably experienced how music can affect the mind. Soothing lullabies put babies to sleep, and many women who have undergone Lamaze training during pregrancy attest to the power of music to lesson pain, or at least shift the focus away from labor pain.

Music therapy takes its cue from music's ability to affect body and soul. Using music as a healing medium dates back to ancient times. In fact, early evidence is in the Old Testament, which records how David, a shepherd, played the harp for Saul and the "evil spirit departed from him."

In modern times, music therapy was also used at the end of World War II, when veterans suffering psychological trauma responded positively to music. The therapy has since broadened its scope to include not only psychological disorders, but emotional problems, learning disabilities, mental retardation, and physical and developmental disabilities.

Ha Eun-kyung, who practices music therapy in Tokok-dong, southern Seoul, mostly treats children with autism, mental retardation and Down's Syndrome.

"With children, musical improvisation is used, where the teacher composes a piece that the children play on top of with instruments," explained Ms. Ha. During a typical 30-minute one-on-one session, children play a variety of instruments, including the piano, lyre, harp, recorder or drums.

Improvisation is an important part of music therapy, because it offers a creative, non-verbal means of expressing feelings, according to Ms. Ha. Through singing, playing and movement, people can interact non-verbally and explore feelings that are difficult to express through words alone.

Music therapy is all the more valuable in working with the young, who often find it especially difficult to express their feelings verbally. Ms. Ha recalled a case of a three-year-old Korean girl born in the United States who was brought to her. During a visit to Seoul, the child's parents noticed she was extremely quiet, speaking little compared with her cousins here. The girl was suffering from childhood reactive attachment disorder.

"The mother was depressed as she wasn't adjusting well to her new life in the United States," Ms. Ha said. "As a result the young girl had been left on her own for most of the day for the first two and a half years of her life."

Ms. Ha described her first meeting with the girl as a shock. "When she first walked in, she had this completely deadpan expression," Ms. Ha said. Music therapy sessions with the mother and child continued for two months, during which the two grew closer to each other. The girl showed great improvement, becoming more talkative and expressive. "It was successful because we intervened early," said Ms. Ha. She says the treatment often results in dramatic changes in children. "There are definite changes in the child's behavior and the parents sense it immediately," Ms. Ha explained.

With older patients, music is used to relax them before further therapy.

"People have the idea that only classical music is used in therapy, but this is not true," Ms. Ha said. "The music chosen depends pretty much on the client's mood, although as the therapist I do preselect the list. A young kid with a behavioral problem, for example, responded well to rap music by Seo Tai-ji."

Music therapy sessions can include a wide range of activities: singing and playing instruments, listening to music, setting imagery to music, rhythmic movement, song writing and composition.

Although it may seem passive, listening to music has many therapeutic applications. It helps develop cognitive skills, such as attention and memory. Listening to music in a relaxed and receptive state stimulates thoughts, images, and feelings that can be further examined and discussed with the therapist.

Moving from the soul to the body, there is a movement in the West to use music therapy in medical settings, allowing patients more choice in their treatment. Recognizing that invasive surgery and recuperative treatment can cause physical stress and that unexpected bad news and loss of control can cause emotional stress, music therapy provides patients with a familiar and positive way to cope with being in hospital.

Research has shown that music can influence biological responses such as heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate, muscle tone, papillary responses, skin responses, the immune system and endorphin production. Hence, different types of music can calm or invigorate the body. Soothing music can lower anxiety, pain, tension and stress levels, allowing lower doses of anesthetics and pain relievers. This can mean a shorter recovery period. On the other hand, stimulating music can be a source of motivation, physically and psychologically, and can act as a positive reinforcement during physical therapy and rehabilitation.

Hanyang University Medical Center runs weekly music treatment sessions with help from volunteers from SookMyung Music Therapy Center.

"We have five stroke patients referred to us by neurosurgery and rehabilitation departments," said Sung Myung-soon, from the hospital's social works department that oversees the program. Stroke victims with motor impairments benefit from using small musical instruments that help coordination. Singing helps with speech impairments.

However, there are some misunderstandings.

"Patients say they'd rather sing popular songs," Mr. Sung said. "We have to persuade them that this is not a recreational activity, but therapy."

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