Two stories I read recently really ticked me off:
You may be wondering “Why Kimberly? Why did these articles make you mad? Don’t you want to world to know the power of music? How it can help others?”
Well, yes, I do. But not like this. You see, to do it in this way is irresponsible. To do it this way sets music therapists back, helps perpetuate the view that music therapy is “flaky,” and further confuses the public as to what music REALLY can do.
The first article describes a new program and product line that “dispenses” musical “prescriptions” for various ailments (pain management, anxiety, depression, and insomnia, among others). Seriously?
The second article briefly describes research being conducted at the Department of Homeland Security. The researchers are working to convert a person’s neural activity into melodies. They plan to use this “music” to help facilitate a feeling of alertness or a feeling of relaxation for that person. Wow.
I am highly skeptical of these claims. First of all, both involve simply listening to music. But what about being engaged in music making? Or music improvisation? Or composition? There can be so much more to a musical experience than simply listening to music. And, yes, listening to music does engage certain neural pathways and networks, but so does music production. Why limit yourself to listening alone?
Also, musical taste is highly individualized. Research shows time and time again that an individual’s preferred music is what is MOST effective. Are you going to “dispense” different music for every single patient to make sure their personal preference is accounted for?
And how will you account for someone’s memories and experiences? Music ties in deeply to our emotional and memory systems. Even if you use “original” music, how can you totally eliminate every phrase or motif that may remind someone of another piece. Even a few short notes can trigger our memory and emotional systems. If that produces an unexpected reaction from someone, how do you account for that?
And I would like to know how to plan to “convert” a person’s neural activity to a melody. The brain doesn’t make music in this way. Give me a break. And give the brain a little credit. A person’s brain is not going to “sync” up to music that simply. It’s much more sophisticated than that.
Finally, what about the power of suggestion and the influence of training? If you hand a person some music and tell them to listen to it, that it will help them sleep better, how do you know if it’s the music or your suggestion that is at work? That’s called the placebo effect. And if they listen to the music over and over, and over and over again it helps a person fall asleep more easily, then how do you know if this new behavior is a result of the music or of the body’s now automatic response to the cue?
So please stop trying to make sensational claims about the “healing powers” of music. Even wrapped in neuroscientific jargon, these are still sensational claims. Music can be a powerful tool and can do wonders therapeutically. But it works best in conjunction with other therapy and treatment approaches. Just like humans are interdependent on others and cannot survive alone, music as a treatment tool is interdependent with others and cannot work as a stand-alone cure.