It’s listening to it, writing it, or making it – music therapy can occur in all of these ways, and has proven to help people heal.

Music influences us in all aspects of our lives – physically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually explained Lisa Wutch, an accredited music therapist at St. Paul’s Hospital.

Lisa Wutch plays a song on her guitar

Lisa Wutch demonstrates interventions as part of some of her music therapy sessions with patients at St. Paul’s Hospital in Saskatoon.

We’re usually introduced to music at a very young age – mothers around the world, in every culture, sing to their babies – and it continues to play a role in our lives as we grow up, from learning how to play an instrument, to listening to music in the car, to seeing our favourite bands in concert.

“We spent a lot of our daily lives engaged in music, but often we’re not aware of the impact it has on us,” Wutch said. “It’s an important part of our culture and every culture.”

Music therapy developed in Canada as a profession in the 1970s, decades after it was used to help treat soldiers returning from the front in World Wars I and II. It’s a goal-oriented use of music and musical elements within a therapeutic relationship, Wutch explained.  Music therapists use musical interventions to accomplish non-musical goals.

“Music influences the whole person, which makes it a powerful medium to use,” said Wutch.

For instance, music can promote muscular relaxation, alleviate the perception of pain and discomfort, decrease agitation and restlessness, and promote movement. Music actually stimulates the brain stem, regulates heart rate, pulse, blood pressure, body temperature, skin conductance and muscle tension, Wutch noted. Brain stem neurons tend to fire synchronously with the tempo of music, and the cardiovascular system is affected depending on if a person is listening to stimulating or relaxing music.

Recent research has actually shown that listening to a steady beat can help people with Parkinsons move better.

“Their whole body will come to the beat,” Wutch explained. “Motor responses can be entrained by rhythmic auditory cuing.”

Psychologically, music can alleviate anxiety and depression, and help people explore and express emotion, especially those who have a limited ability to express themselves verbally. And music encourages people to socialize with others, and strengthen bonds with loved ones. It can be a way to express spirituality, or explore questions of the unknown.

Music therapy is appropriate for all ages and stages of life, Wutch said, and you don’t need musical experience or ability to benefit from it. Music Therapists work in a variety of medical settings, from surgical units to mental health to pediatric wards and neonatal intensive care units.

One music therapy session can look a lot different than the next, as each caters to the individual in order to meet the goals and objectives for that person.  Sessions may vary in length, and the number of sessions varies per individual as well.

If her client is able to communicate with her, they discuss music preferences, and determine how music can support their health needs, Wutch noted. If her client cannot communicate with her, Wutch consults with other health team members, reviews the client’s chart, and, when the client is able, discusses musical preferences and health needs in order to determine how music can best support the individual.

“A lot of my time is spent facilitating music in different ways, and nurturing the conversations and responses that arise from those experiences,” she said.

There are two types of music therapy experiences – passive and active. Passive therapy is simply listening; active involves making music – singing, playing instruments, improvising or songwriting.

“People are usually more comfortable listening for a little while,” she said. “I often use passive methods in my work.”  She will hum at a bedside, or sing and play her guitar for clients, or perform relaxation exercises for patients and caregivers, which often involves guitar music with guided meditation.

However, she does offer instruments for her clients to use – drums, harmonicas, maracas, and tambourines, for example.

“Active participation in music can provide a sense of accomplishment and empowerment in people,” she stated.

As a client’s preferred music is more likely to encourage their participation, Wutch allows individuals to choose the style of music to listen to or create, which offers an element of control in an environment where patients often have little.

“Classical or new age music may not be the best option,” she smiled.

For more information on music therapy, email Lisa Wutch at lisa.wutch@saskatoonhealthregion.ca.