Music is a part of many people’s daily routines — but it can also be used by music therapists to help people in deeper ways.
Music therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized therapeutic goals. Sessions are conducted with an accredited professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.
Elizabeth Smith, the owner and director of Good Grooves Music Lessons and Therapy in Chapel Hill, is a board-certified music therapist who has been working on improving the quality of life for community members through music therapy.
“I've seen a lot of cognitive skill set building through music,” Smith said. “A lot of times my clients are able to learn different things through music, different skill sets, whether it be reading or math or just emotional expression through music.”
Smith said she has worked with many clients with dementia in the community, and the power of music to reconnect them to reality has been "mind-blowing."
“When I play a song that is familiar to them, the way they light up and the way they sing along — I mean, it's just so ingrained in that brain that that's a part of them that they haven't lost,” Smith said.
Yasmine White, founder and CEO of the music therapy non-profit Voices Together, said music can be a powerful tool to connect the mind and body to increase communication and open learning pathways.
“Using music as a tool is creating a different way to engage an individual," White said. "And music physically changes the body. It has been proven scientifically to increase endorphins, to open neurologic pathways that weren't there in communication, (and) in the case of Alzheimer's to create pathways to memory, so it's an incredibly effective tool.”
With 180,000 North Carolina residents ages 65 and older suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, White said music therapy can be a useful tool to rebuild memory.
Along with dementia patients, White said she also works with individuals who are neurodivergent.
“We provide a very specialized music therapy model, and it's to help individuals, give them tools to communicate, to connect socially, emotionally, and to build self-efficacy for themselves through self-advocacy,” White said.
White said she started Voices Together to help individuals connect with peers and feel comfortable in the community.
Alie Chandler, a music therapist and the owner of Chapel Hill-based Ossia Music Therapy, said she works primarily with in neuro-rehab and with the aging population as a neurologic music therapist.
Chandler said listening to music is one of the only activities that engages both hemispheres of the brain.
“It's a really interesting way to target different areas, like you can target speech through different pathways because you're not just localizing the speech center,” Chandler said. “You're using the whole brain when you're singing, when you're processing lyrics and music and melody."
Jonathan Abramowitz, the director of the clinical psychology Ph.D. program in UNC’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, said music can make people feel good, but that feeling is mostly temporary.
He said that problems such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia might not be treatable with music therapy.
“There's no strong reasons to believe that it would have long-lasting effects, like cognitive behavioral therapies or medication,” Abramowitz said.
Abramowitz said there is not a lot of well-conducted research on music therapy at this point, which makes it difficult to say that music therapy by itself works for a specific problem.
He said that while he would not recommend music therapy on its own, he does believe it can be paired with other thoroughly researched forms of therapy, such as cognitive behavior therapy.
Chandler said that while she does occasionally work with other professionals, such as speech therapists, many clients have had effective treatments with music therapy alone.
“Music therapy is a trained profession,” Chandler said. “There are many therapeutic music programs in the area, and those are great, but they're not specifically music therapy where you have a trained therapist and the client and the music. You have those three parts to make music therapy and it can be extremely effective for overall quality of life of so many people.”
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CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this article referred to psychologists as using music therapy. The title "music therapist" is more accurate in this context. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the specialty of Alie Chandler, who works primarily in neuro-rehab and with the aging population. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.