Nov 15, 2021

Why is music therapy so successful in helping older people get their groove back?

Music Therapy

At its best, the human brain functions much like an orchestra, as billions of neurons communicate in unison to produce the symphony that we call thoughts and actions. However, for individuals experiencing cognitive impairment or injury, mixed messaging within the brain is more akin to a skipping record.

Given the brain’s reliance on patterns for optimal functionality, it should come as no shock  

that Music Therapy – which harnesses the power of music’s many elements to calm an erratic mind – is rapidly growing in popularity and yielding amazing results.

As one of Perth’s leading Registered Music Therapists, Hayley Antipas describes her profession as “working at the intersection between music, neuroscience and psychology”.

“If you’re listening to your favourite tune, out at a concert, or playing an instrument, the music activates every part of your brain. This is profound because music is one of the only activities that we as humans can experience that does this,” she said. 

Much like the varied spectrum of musical tastes, Music Therapy sessions are unique to each individual. The way that music is utilised within a session varies greatly depending on a person’s goals. 

“It might involve the therapist singing songs, and the clients joining in as well if they’re comfortable to do so,” shared Hayley.

“It might involve playing instruments, or writing your own music, which the therapist will support a person to do.”

She added, “It could even involve music-assisted relaxation, where a person listens to intentionally selected music and the therapist guides you through a relaxation. So it really varies depending on, as I say, what that goal is, and that will change the way we use music.”

Hitting the right note

For many, the initial perception of Music Therapy may be throwing on a Sinatra record at a nursing home or waltzing into a hospital equipped with a harmonica and a six-string guitar. 

The reality, however, is a clinical health service that is far more intriguing and complex in nature. 

Using nothing more than the simple clicking sound of a metronome, Hayley is able to create a beat pattern that is easily recognisable and can assist in coordinating physical movement for an individual with impaired motor function skills.

Music Therapy harp
Hayley introduces residents to the sounds of the Reverie Harp.

“Most of us can reach out, pick up a glass of water and bring it to our mouth. This is a coordinated arm movement. But for someone with a brain injury, it might be really difficult to actually reach out and grab something as their arm just won’t do what they want it to.”

She continued, “So I’ll use my trusty little metronome, which is an app on my phone. And I’ll create a pattern of beats that mimic the movement that person wants to be able to do. For example, I might hold a drum out and I’ll ask them to raise their arm and hit the drum in time with the metronome beat pattern. Now, they are executing a coordinated movement. These neurologic music therapy techniques are used to train and rehabilitate movements.”

“Importantly, I start playing the metronome click and ask them just to listen first before moving. This is priming the motor cortex of their brain and it is a way of activating that part of the brain before they’ve even started moving.”

The recognition of beat patterns triggers a consistent firing pattern in neurons which allows the brain to carry more information and assist with things like planning, coordination, and thoughts, which in turn, help to execute physical actions.

The sweetest swan song 

While music therapy can be conducted in group sessions, the uniquely personal connection that people have with certain pieces of music means that individual sessions often produce the most remarkable outcomes.

One such moment in Hayley’s professional career occurred when she was asked to visit an elderly woman living in a residential aged care facility who was in the final days of her life.

Upon knocking on the resident’s door, Hayley was greeted by the woman’s granddaughter, who was thankful, but unconvinced that her grandmother would be able to respond.

“Then, I started to hum that melody and gradually progressed to singing the lyrics. The song was actually You Are My Sunshine,” she said.

“The woman just ever-so-slightly started to smile, you could see the corners of her mouth moving. And then she rolled her head over to the side, puckered her lips towards her granddaughter, and sort of blew this gentle little kiss.”

Despite having told this particular story a number of times, Hayley is still overcome with emotion when sharing the details of this experience.

“To be able to facilitate that interaction, where some of [the granddaughter’s] final memories of her grandmother are that beautiful moment … that’s a real privilege. And that memory will stay with me forever.”

Joining the choir

Like occupational therapy and physiotherapy, music therapy is an allied health profession requiring postgraduate qualification in Australia. 

Once qualified, music therapists need to register with the Australian Music Therapy Association, which requires additional training and clinical research on a yearly basis in order to maintain registration.

Like many of her colleagues in the field, Hayley’s career as a music therapist began organically and stemmed from her passion for music and ambition to help those in need.

However, she had no idea that music itself would eventually become her tool for healing others.

Music Therapy guitar
Hayley strums the guitar in unison with sounds being created by an aged care resident.

“It wasn’t until many years later, I was at a concert and heard this story about a Jazz singer named Melody Gardot who actually had a brain injury,” she said. 

“Part of her recovery was music therapy, and for me, that was a lightbulb moment of, ‘Wow … here’s a job where I can combine music, science and health. This is the one for me.”

Information that Hayley hopes will be useful for anyone caring for her when she is approaching the latter stages of life. 

“Music therapists that work with me, when I’m older, are going to have to have a good range of repertoire,” laughed Hayley. 

“I think they’ll have to have some Spice Girls, some punk, and probably a bit of rap as well.”

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