thescientist | A man with Parkinson’s disease sitting in a crowded restaurant has to use the rest room, but he cannot get there. His feet are frozen; he cannot move. The more he tries, the more stressed he becomes. People are beginning to stare at him and wonder what is wrong. Then he remembers the song “You Are My Sunshine,” which his music therapist taught him to use in situations like this. He starts humming the tune. In time with the music, he steps forward—one foot and then the other—and begins walking to the beat in his head. Still humming, he makes it to the rest room, avoiding a potentially embarrassing situation.
Freezing of gait is a common occurrence for many people with Parkinson’s disease. Such struggles can limit social experience and lead to seclusion and depression. Unfortunately, available pharmacological and surgical treatments for Parkinson’s do a poor job of quelling this and many other symptoms. But where conventional medicine has failed, music therapy can sometimes provide relief.
Music therapy is the use of music by a credentialed professional as an intervention to improve, restore, or maintain a non-music-related behavior in a patient or client. As a music therapist, I have worked with many people with Parkinson’s disease and have seen how music can provide an external cue for patients to walk in time to, allowing them to overcome freezing. I have also used group singing to help patients with Parkinson’s improve their respiratory control and swallowing. Impaired swallowing can lead to aspiration pneumonia, which is a leading cause of death among this patient population.
But perhaps the most powerful component of music therapy is the social benefit derived from making music together, which can help patients combat depression. When patients with Parkinson’s engage in music therapy, often one of the first behaviors to emerge is smiling, and the flat affect and masked face that are characteristic symptoms of the disease fade away. These participants comment on how music therapy is the best part of their week, and their caregivers state that their loved ones are in much better moods—with fewer Parkinson’s symptoms—after returning home from music therapy.
While all of this is interesting, it is not new. Aristotle and Plato were among the first to write on the healing influence of music. The earliest references to music as therapy occurred in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and the field formally began after World War I, when professional and amateur musicians played for veterans who had suffered physical and emotional trauma as a result of the war. Nowadays, certified music therapists seek to do more than just play the right song at the right time. They use music to help people with many different physical and emotional disorders or diseases.