The restorative power of music

"We would sing right out loud the things we could not say.” — The Eagles, “Sad Cafe”

 | By

There is a greater emphasis on the significance of mental health than ever before. Traditional counseling, physical activity and antidepressants are often prescribed rather liberally, while music therapy falls to the wayside in favor of more traditional therapeutic methods. Only now is music therapy finally beginning to receive the momentum it deserves, as it becomes more widely recognized by experts to be a highly effective and versatile form of therapy.

Andrea Hunt has a PhD in sociology from North Carolina State University and now resides in Florence, Alabama, instructing several sociology courses at the University of North Alabama. In addition to her job at UNA, Hunt works with local teens in a program called SPAN (Special Program for Achieving Network), a juvenile diversion program designed to keep at-risk teens out of juvenile detention through counseling and intervention.

Hunt has been working with at-risk youth for fourteen years, but it was just two years ago when she began offering a course through UNA’s sociology department, called “The Sociology of Hip Hop,” that Hunt realized the strategies she was teaching her college students in this course could also benefit the teens she worked with outside of class.

Andrea Hunt speaks to her “Sociology of Hip Hop” class at UNA. [DARIEN HARRIS/SET MAGAZINE]

While Hunt does not come from a musical background, she has always been passionate about music, and, more specifically, hip hop music. Hunt recognized and fell in love with the connection between poetry and hip hop because of her background in sociology, and she began a sort of music therapy program within the juvenile detention center focused around reading, analyzing and writing hip hop lyrics

“Most of these kids are coming from really unstable home environments,” Hunt said.

“Music provides a way for people to examine their own lives. By giving them music that they can relate to and identify with they are able to process their emotions, learn conflict resolution and even write lyrics of their own.”

Emily Peace-Macher, a board-certified music therapist, uses similar tactics working in school systems.

Peace-Macher resides in Birmingham, Alabama, and works in both the Shelby County and Tuscaloosa County school systems as a regularly contracted music therapist for seventeen different special needs classes. In these classes, Macher uses music as a tool to teach non-music skills in order to help these children reach developmental, behavioral, and academic IEP (Individualized Education Program) goals.

Some examples of IEP goals are speech, following directions, attending to tasks, focus and identifying letters of the alphabet. Music is scientifically proven to strengthen memorization as it affects several different areas of the brain simultaneously. By using musical methods, Macher and other trained music therapists have seen significant improvement in students who would otherwise struggle with these seemingly menial assignments and skills.

“My professors always emphasized the importance of studying the demographic of the groups you will be working with,” Peace-Macher said.

Hunt said mental health is an issue that is statistically proven to be heavily unaddressed in African American culture. By incorporating hip hop lyrics into group discussions, Hunt quickly found a way to connect and build a rapport with teens — a rapport that otherwise may not exist. Hunt noted that hip hop is not only often emotional, but also frequently addresses political and social issues, thus opening even more opportunity for conversation among young adults who may otherwise feel apprehensive about discussing these topics with their peers in a group setting.

“I’ve seen males in juvenile detention stand up and say they’ve been hurt through lyric,” she said. “That is a very vulnerable thing to say to a group of male peers in that sort of environment. To them, there’s something safe about putting it in a song.”

Music therapy is utilized in juvenile and adult detention centers for behavioral and emotional therapy, in hospice care for emotional therapy and relaxation, and in neonatal ICU units for healing, relaxation and strength. Stroke patients are able to relearn to walk by being given a rhythm to match their stride to. Even unborn infants benefit from music therapy in order to better improve their chances of survival and literacy after birth.

One of the most common misconceptions about music therapy is that simply playing calming or motivational music for a patient can alter their mood. In actuality, more often than not music therapy is actually used as a means to achieve non-musical goals. These include, but are certainly not limited to, relaxation and motivation.

“One of the major things they emphasized in school was using patient-preferred music,” Peace-Macher said. “For someone struggling with an eating disorder who isn’t interested in classical music, you don’t want to be exposing them to Bach when you could be playing them Ingrid Michaelson if you know that’s what they’re into. Use a song that the client can connect to and see what that can pull out of them.”

To learn more about what music therapists such as Emily and Andrea do, and to seek music therapy for yourself, visit musictherapy.org.