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Timeline: Music Therapy

U.S. Public Domain
Louis Gallait's "Power of Music" depicts a brother comforting his sister with the violin as they mourn outside a tomb. This image has been an inspiration for music therapists.

For the past few months we’ve been exploring the way that music affects us physically, emotionally, socially and neurologically. Along the way we’ve hinted at how these concepts and studies have been translated into therapies designed to address particular needs of patients. Music therapy has become a well-established health profession dedicated to the use of musical invention to address the wellness of individuals.


Let’s look at one example. On January 8, 2011, outside a Safeway grocery store near Tuscon, Arizona, Congresswoman Gabby Giffords survived an assassination attempt after she was attacked and shot in the head. Following many surgeries and a medically induced coma, Giffords began to recover. But, her doctors discovered that Gabby suffered from aphasia, the loss of the ability to understand or express speech due to brain damage. Only eight months later, in August, Giffords returned to congress for a vote on the House floor, able to walk, talk, read and write. How did she recover so quickly from such a horrific injury?

Giffords credits her music therapist, Dr. Meaghan Morrow, a certified brain injury specialist at TIRR Memorial Hermann Rehabilitation Hospital in Houston. Dr. Morrow describes her therapeutic technique using the metaphor of a highway detour. The brain is made up of many different connections, like roads or pathways for information to travel. An injury, like Giffords’, can interrupt the flow and cutoff one part of the brain from another. Dr. Morrow describes, “You aren’t able to go forward on that pathway anymore, but you can exit and go around, and get to where you need to go.” By connecting language and music, words and melody, together Dr. Morrow was able to help Gabby Giffords rewire her brain and build new connections around her injury, a cognitive detour. This is how an adult can relearn how to speak.

Dr. Oliver Sacks, the author of Musicophilia, declared, “Nothing activates the brain so extensively as music.” We’ve known for centuries that even individuals who were called “mute” could still sing. In 1871 Victorian clinician Dr. John Hughlings Jackson wrote an article called, “Singing by Speechless Children.” But it’s only been in the past couple of decades that we’ve explored why the “mute” can sing and how music might actually heal. Many are still skeptical about music therapy and only a few health insurance companies cover these services. Hopefully that will change as evidence mounts, showing just how effective these treatments can be.

Dr. Meaghan Morrow recounts her first sessions with Congresswoman Giffords. Sharing how they discovered some of Gabby’s favorite songs and invited her to listen, hum along and eventually sing American Pie and Brown-eyed Girl. Dr. Morrow told ABC News, “When I first saw Gabby and I first sang the song with her, I knew that things were going to get better.”

Imagine the possibilities! How many more could be helped and reached through the healing power of music? Maybe you have a story of how music reached you or a loved one. Leave a comment below; we’d love for you to share your stories with us.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.

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