Healing body, soul with music“Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.”
― William Congreve, 17th-century English playwright
Music touches the soul like nothing else. Music imparted a calming influence on the tyrannical Roman emperor Nero. Shakespeare called it the “food of love.” But music does not merely move the soul ― it also provides emotional, psychological and physical healing. People with minor disabilities as well as the terminally ill have attributed their recoveries in varying degrees to music’s therapeutic effects.
Since the idea originated in the United States more than 50 years ago, musical therapy has become widespread. In Korea, Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul was a pioneer in the field, opening its graduate department of music therapy in 1997. Four other universities soon followed suit with specialized coursework in the field. Music therapy now is available in Korea everywhere from hospitals and community centers to private practices.
“By listening to music, creating music and playing instruments, patients are able to overcome their human limitations and gain motivation to become physically fit,” says Lee Ju-young, a music therapist with Sookmyung Women’s University’s Music Therapy Center.
A member of Sookmyung’s first graduating class, Ms. Lee has treated almost 100 patients ― from infants to 60-year-olds ― and counts 40 patients on her roster. Her patient on a Friday, a 15-month-old boy, arrives early in the arms of his mother, who remains in a separate room to watch a video of the session. Jae-min (not his real name) was born eight weeks prematurely, so compared with his peers he is less developed. He also suffers from mild paralysis of the right side of his body, and his right arm and leg display slow reflexes.
This is Jae-min’s third session with Ms. Lee on campus, and he has become relaxed around her.
“Jae-min, look here, aha!” says Ms. Lee, cooing at Jae-min and pointing at chimes, which she positions next to a big drum. Packed into the small room are drums, keyboards and a stereo set, as well as tambourines, cymbals and chimes. While strumming a guitar, Ms. Lee improvises a tune, singing aloud, “Jae-min goes to the beach. ...”
The baby stares at the guitar and emits gurgling sounds as Ms. Lee sings on. Jae-min seems engrossed by the music, then hits the drum and touches the chimes with his left hand.
“Jae-min, darling, use your pretty hand, your pretty hand,” Ms. Lee responds, pointing to the baby’s right hand. Jae-min slowly moves his right arm and tentatively puts it on the drum.
Over in the tiny monitoring room, Jae-min’s mother smiles as she watches her infant move his weak arm with greater ease than before.
Ms. Lee continues to hum nursery rhymes, imitate baby sounds, and smile at Jae-min, as he tries to touch the guitar. She also tries to divert his attention by pointing to his toes.
But her efforts still do not capture his attention. Little Jae-min gazes around, apparently looking for his mom, and starts to whimper. To counter the child’s waning attention, Ms. Lee turns on the stereo, and as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” plays, she carries Jae-min to the drums and tambourine. That perks him up, and he starts banging on the drums with a stick in his left hand.
Again, she encourages him to use his right hand to hold the drumstick. But he starts to whine, so Ms. Lee moves him to the keyboard. Cuddling on Ms. Lee’s lap, he slams on the keys as she demonstrates how different keys produce different sounds. After a few minutes of calm, Jae-min starts crying again and asking for his mommy.
Ms. Lee lifts him, takes him to the wooden blocks, and prods him to beat on them. Every time Jae-min becomes irritable, she moves to and fro, from instrument to instrument, trying to soothe him.
Jae-min’s mother walks in and sits next to Jae-min, who is now beaming. He smiles radiantly at Ms. Lee, who starts playing the guitar again and improvising a song. Before his mother scoops him away for good, Jae-min offers Ms. Lee a high five and waves goodbye.
“He’s not that afraid of being apart from his mother anymore,” Ms. Lee tells Jae-min’s mother after the 40-minute session has ended.
She discusses changes she has observed in the boy and explains why she switched instruments. “Introducing a new type of instrument helps distract him from his irritable disposition,” Ms. Lee says.
Jae-min’s mother, Kim Jin-seon, says, “For Jae-min, coming here means stress relief. During the week, he goes through grueling physical therapy which puts him in great pain, as well as stress, but the music has made him fear treatment less.”
Another youngster benefiting from music therapy at Sookmyung is Hong Seung-jin (also an alias), a 2-year-old who has difficulty learning to speak because of mild autism.
“He has been throwing fewer fits lately, and can now say, ‘Mommy’ and ‘Dada’,” says his father, Hong Kyu-tae. “Plus, he has become incredibly active.” Mr. Hong lauds Ms. Lee, saying she has a special talent. “Music therapy is not merely using instruments ― it is about treating a child ― and she has that ability to touch a child spiritually, he says.
At an afternoon session, two 6-year-olds, a boy and a girl, gather in a large room containing a piano, drums and an array of other instruments. Their mothers sit in an adjoining room, where three TV monitors will display the sessions with the therapist. These youngsters are not physically or mentally disabled, but they have trouble socializing with their classmates.
The children start out tapping on the piano keys, then move on to drums and wooden chimes and finally to singing nursery rhymes together.
The two then move to a game of mock tennis, hitting a pink balloon with a miniature plastic racket. Before long, they are busy twirling oversized ribbons. From the stereo, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” starts to play, and the children begin dancing.
Afterward, the children flick off the lights and play ghost, and Ms. Lee plays the piano according to the kids’ mood. If they utter ghoulish sounds, she plays spooky music. If they decide there are no ghosts, she adopts a lighter tune.
The session ends with the children returning the chairs and instruments to their places, and then giving Ms. Lee a high-five.
“Through music-related activities, these kids are taught to become cooperative and to express themselves freely,” Ms. Lee says. At the beginning of the course, the girl was shy and hid behind her mother. Now she is running about.
Music does indeed have a way of moving people, Ms. Lee explains. It gives patients the will and strength to make an effort to be healed; it is a voluntary as well as involuntary response that touches a person’s emotional, mental and physical sides.
“Music calms the nerves, and through instruments, patients can express their sentiments and improve responses,” Ms. Lee says. “And most important, it gives motivation.”
by Choi Jie-ho