Antonia Navarro, Lorraine Armitage, Susette Meier, Mary Fisher and Anne Walsh
Music therapist Antonia Navarro leads the residents in song. (Residents from left) Lorraine Armitage, Susette Meier, Mary Fisher, Anne Walsh. Photos by Diana Waring

Singing the blues to beat depression

By Julian Wise - March 1, 2007

Can music be medicine?

According to Karen Wacks, Clinical Training Coordinator of the Music Therapy Department at the Berklee College of Music, music can heal. While many of us experience mild pleasure from turning on the radio, music's full healing potential comes from the prescribed use of musical activities directed by trained professionals. With proper guidance, music can help patients achieve therapeutic goals.

On Feb. 16, Ms. Wacks and music therapist Antonia Navarro spoke at Windemere at a forum titled "Beating the Blues through Music: Relieving Stress and Depression." The event, coordinated and sponsored by Vineyard Vibes and Martha's Vineyard Co-operative Bank, presented evidence that music therapy is effective in combating the stress and depression that frequently preys on seniors.

Geraldine Silva and Antonia Navarro
Geraldine Silva enjoys Antonia Navarro's guitar playing.

Ms. Wacks was impressed with the openness local health practitioners expressed toward music therapy. "Any nursing home and hospital on the Vineyard could benefit from a music therapy program designed to meet the needs of their patients and residents," she said after the talk. "Music therapy is becoming part of integrative therapy programs throughout the country and with so much creativity on the Vineyard, music therapy would thrive."

While music therapy may sound like a new idea, it's been around for centuries. Scriptures trace it to ancient civilizations in Africa, Egypt, China, India, Greece and Rome. It took hold in the U.S. in the mid 20th century and developed as a professional discipline at VA hospitals during World War II. Common therapeutic goals are promoting wellness, improving stress and pain management, building emotional support, enhancing memory, improving communication, and aiding physical rehabilitation. Patient populations include the elderly, the physically and developmentally disabled, addicts, the sensory and neurologically impaired, and the terminally ill. It is practiced in hospitals, hospices, schools, correctional facilities, youth-at-risk programs, and outpatient clinics. Practitioners are qualified by the Certification Board for Music Therapists, following extensive academic and clinical training.

Music therapy techniques include song writing, drumming, sing-a-longs, improvisation, guided imagery/relaxation, and performance. Music is processed in the brain's limbic region, the area responsible for integrating emotion and memory. Music can stimulate emotional response and memories while affecting heart and respiration rates, muscle tension, and relaxation responses. There have been several medical studies detailing how music therapy reduces distress and depression in older adults, reduces nausea and emesis in chemotherapy patients, and decreases distress in pediatric oncology patients during needle sticks.

Elizabeth Mendolia and Karen Wacks
Elizabeth Mendolia was so inspired by the jaunty music that she joined Berklee professor Karen Wacks for a turn around the floor.

As brain-imaging technology unlocks the mysteries of sensory processing and the mind-body connection, the healing powers of music will be better understood. For now, it remains a powerful tool in the hands of qualified practitioners. Matthew Lee, acting director of NYU Medical Center's Rusk Institute of Rehabilitative Medicine, writes,

"Music therapy has been an invaluable tool with many of our rehabilitation patients. There is no question that the relationship of music and medicine will blossom because of the advent of previously unavailable techniques that can now show the effects of music."

Julian Wise is a frequent contributor to The Times, specializing in music, film, and the performing arts.