Music Therapy and Mental Health
Music is one of those tools that we often turn to when times are tough. Songs can make us laugh and make us cry, they can bring back memories and stir emotions in us that we may have not known were there. Throughout history the power of music has always been held in an almost magical reverence. Music helped Orpheus to calm Cerebrus at the gates of the underworld. Music caused the children of Hamlin to follow the pied piper, and when the ancient Dagda played his magical harp, not only could he change the seasons, but he could make the people of Ireland laugh, cry or sleep. Music still speaks to us today in the age of radios and Spotify, often in our most tender moments.
Music therapy can help those who are facing a range of mental health challenges, from depression and anxiety to trauma and psychosis. According to Victor Hugo, “Music expresses that which cannot be said, and on which it is impossible to stay silent”. In music therapy for mental health, music is used alongside psychotherapeutic techniques to help the individual at hand understand and express themselves and promote positive engagement with the world. Some musical activities that can be engaged with when working in mental health include (but are not limited to);
Meditations with music (both guided and free)
Due to the covid-19 lockdown we are now offering online (zoom) support in both individual and group sessions.
Keep scrolling to find out more about music therapy and mental health.
How music can help with your mental health
Writing musical narratives
A personal story
One of the most commonly used methods in working in music therapy in mental health is songwriting. According to one of the leading music therapists of the twentieth century, Dr. Kenneth Bruscia, songs "are the sounds of our personal development".
While this may seem a bit puzzling, it really is quite simple. Songs present a platform for emotional expression that may be difficult to access through other means. The playlist embedded below is an example of what a music therapy album may sound like. Written, recorded and produced by Danny Dineen as part of his self development process during a time when he was facing his own mental health challenges, an insight is provided into his journey through music therapy.
The ten song album (titled "Meditations") is presented not as an art piece but rather as a therapeutic insight and therefore has plenty of bum notes and off beats throughout. This is meant to emphasize the point that music therapy does not need to be a radio quality production. Music therapy is about a process of self development and empowerment. That will mean something different to every individual.
What is presented here is the timeless human story of lost love, depression and isolation through the dark night of the soul with a light at the end of the tunnel. The metaphors of death and rebirth allow for the rejuvenation and reaffirmation of the individual, experienced through metaphorical musical narration.
To paraphrase the great artist Jean Michel Basquiat, if art is how we vivify space, music is how we vivify time. Songwriting in this fashion can help an individual understand their own story. By working through metaphor, you can cast a shining light onto a previously hidden inner world.
If this album resonates with you, contact munster music therapy today and find your own personal style of expression and narrate, decorate or even re-frame your own life story.
Songwriting in music therapy
For a more technical, academic explanation of the use of therapeutic songwriting in mental health contexts, click on the button below to download Danny Dineens Masters thesis which was a study on this topic.
Dineen, Daniel. (2020). Analysis of the use of therapeutic songwriting in music therapy and mental health in Ireland. 10.13140/RG.2.2.31290.62409.
Relating through songs - a fictional case study
Sometimes if an individual is particularly withdrawn from the world, a music therapist might write a song for and about the individual at hand.
Using something called the "iso-principle", a music therapist can pick up on and match to the emotional state of an individual, meeting them where they are, in the mood that they are in. This allows a music therapist and the individual they are working with to create a shared space where the service user can feel understandable and relatable.
“[Iso-principle is] a technique by which music is matched with the mood of a client, then gradually altered to affect the desired mood state. This technique can also be used to affect physiological responses such as heart rate and blood pressure” (Davis, Gfeller, & Thaut, 2008).
Presented here is the fictional case of "Maura".
Maura is a sixty six year old woman who was referred to music therapy due to her diagnosis of anxiety disorder. She is an outpatient at her local mental health facility and does not take part in the group therapies and workshops available due to her anxiety. Maura has one daughter who lives abroad and with whom she does not have much contact. Maura lives alone in a small appartment in the town centre and suffers from psoriasis which flares up when she is particularly anxious.
Maura's music therapy programme may centre around relieving her anxiety as well as fostering a sense of agency. This would allow Maura to see how she can make things happen rather than to be stuck in a passive state where things simply happen to her.
While Maura attends music therapy (showing that she enjoys it and finds value/meaning in it), she does not participate much and can be quite distant during her sessions. This leads the therapist to write a song, using the iso-principle to meet Maura where she is. Hearing her own story, presented through song by the music therapist can provide Maura with the experience of genuine, meaningful human contact, reassuring her that she is not alone and that her therapist understands and can reflect how she feels.
This song, in particular was highlighted as an example of best practice in how a music therapist may "reflect on Maura's point of view" and "encourage and enable greater understanding of the perspective of the service user" in a recent book by Dr. Hilary Moss of the University of Limerick, titled "Music and creativity in healthcare settings: Does music matter?".
Chapt. 4 "Excellence", (P.P. 78)
Moss, H. (2021). Music and Creativity in Healthcare Settings: Does Music Matter?. Routledge.
Sometimes, if you are feeling particularly stressed, anxious or overwhelmed, your music therapist may lead you through a guided meditation in order to relax and relieve some of the pressure you may be carrying or give you a personalized meditation to take away with you to use as a coping mechanism in difficult times.
Managing stress and trauma through non-verbal means
Musical improvisations are one of the strongest tools available to any music therapist. While it may seem daunting at first, simply sitting down at a piano (or any other instrument for that matter) and letting go is a lot more straight forward than you might think!
Musical improvisations can be as simple or complex as you can imagine, ranging from simple two or three note exploratory exercises to complete concertos for the more experienced improviser. In music therapy, the therapist can play and/or listen to the music of the person they are working with, guiding and supporting them through the entire process.
Whilst everyone knows the caricature of the angsty teenager taking out their frustration by beating their drum-kit to within an inch of it's life, sometimes that's just what they need to regulate themselves and their emotions. And sometimes music therapists follow this archetype with a bit more nuance.
If you are stressed and holding a lot of anger then mashing your fists into the keys on a piano to make a ruckus that is as sharp and disjointed as you feel can bring an overwhelming sense of relief.
In the same way, if you are feeling depressed and lonely, simply holding a deep, slow and sparse two or three note pattern can express and embody the isolation that you may be feeling.
Channeling your emotions through music in this way can help you to recognise, accept and eventually overcome emotions and feelings that are present in you that may be too difficult to deal with in a more verbal fashion. You may even find that emotions that you didn't even know were there at all can be brought to light in a cathartic experience!
The main benefit of improvising with a music therapist in this way is the non-verbal nature of the improvisation. This provides a viable alternative to classical psychotherapy for someone who feels that they may not yet be ready to talk. While the therapist and service user may discuss the improvisation afterwards, they may equally sit in silence and take in what it was that was given voice through the music.
Below are two examples of what musical improvisations may sound like. Don't worry if you think that you may not be able to play in this way, it's actually a lot simpler than it sounds and could be done by anyone (In fact, generally speaking it is more difficult for trained musicians to improvise in this way then it is for somebody with no musical background)! Each of these improvisations was created using loop pedals over the course of a number of sessions, what remained the same was the theme around which the improvisation was gradually built.
"ANX-19" was created as a response to the anxiety provoked by the covid-19 pandemic and "Rebirth" symbolizes the surrealness of waking up in a covid world whilst providing some sense of comfort that life will go on.
Please note, if you are feeling particularly anxious at the moment, as a precaution, it may be advisable not to listen to ANX-19 as it could be anxiety inducing.
This improvisation was created over a number of sessions using a loop pedal, accordion, piano, drum and vocals. The lyrics were quoted from the Grimms brothers fairytale "The wolf and the seven little kids". The piece was meant to channel, give voice to and accept the anxiety present at the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic.
Please note that if you are feeling particularly anxious at the moment, as a precaution, it may be advisable NOT to listen to this piece.
This improvisation was created over a number of sessions using a loop pedal, piano, drums, an ocean drum, flute and vocals.
It was meant to symbolize the surrealness of waking up in a covid world whilst providing some sense of comfort and potential for new growth in a contemplative, meditative musical environment.
Some final thoughts...
To close this section on mental health, presented below is a piece showcasing one of the best reasons to try out music therapy...
MUSIC THERAPY IS FUN!!!
Often when we are feeling down and facing mental health challenges, we can face a famine of fun in our lives without even realising it! Having fun and allowing your joyful and playful self to have space to emerge can have a massive impact on improving your mental health. It can re-ignite the wonder that is sometimes hidden, but always present in the world. Here is a short rap (inspired by the Rubber Bandits and written and recorded on a mobile phone while procrastinating on a building site in Limerick), showcasing the more playful, light-hearted side of music therapy that can sometimes be forgotten about when talking about serious mental health concerns. Sometimes you just need to have a little bit of fun to help pick yourself up!