Music as Medicine

Man playing piano while standing with both hands

Man playing piano while standing with both hands

Sometimes, when words won’t come or aren’t enough, the power of music can soothe, heal or act as catharsis.

Using instrumental and vocal activities, music therapists help patients reduce pain and anxiety, manage stress, communicate and express their emotions.

“Basically, a lot of people have the image that it’s a go-in-and-play-Kumbaya kind of thing,” says Brett Northrup, music therapist for Norton Cancer Institute. “We’re using the music to evoke feelings or distract them from pain. It’s not traditional, but at the same time, it meets that need.”

Northrup continues, “From a layperson’s perspective it may look like we’re just going in and playing a song, but we’re using that music to meet that need.”

Norton uses music therapists, along with occupational and physical therapists, massage therapists and others to provide comprehensive care for their patients battling cancer, but music therapy is used in all areas of healthcare.

The University of Louisville started a music therapy program in 2000 – the first in the state to offer a music therapy degree.

The university also offers therapy through the UofL Music Therapy Clinic, partly funded by the WHAS Crusade for Children. Their goal is to be the preeminent music therapy education, research center and provider of care for children and adults with disabilities and health challenges in the Kentuckiana area.

Northrup, 43, received his degree from UofL in 2012 and has been a music therapist for nearly five years. “I was a late bloomer,” he says. “I went back to school later in life, discovered music therapy, and it was pretty much over from there.”

Brian Schreck, 36, is also a music therapist with Norton Cancer Institute and has been an American Music Therapy Association certified therapist since 2004.

“You have to be a good musician to be a good music therapist,” he says. “There are competencies that we are all expected to have – four years of school and a six- to nine-month internship, plus they should be competent on guitar, piano and percussion instruments.”

“There is individualized therapy for each person,” Schreck says. “It depends on the day, the patient and their preferences. It’s live music. It’s not prerecorded. Every day is totally different, even with the same patient.”

“A lot of times, we’re walking in right after they found out some bad news,” Northrup relates. “You walk in and the first thing you do is meet them where they are. You let them cry it out or you give them a drum and let them bang out the anger.” 

“That’s a really neat and transformative experience,” he says. “A lot of times, you feel like you’re the one that’s been helped.”

Schreck agrees.

“The song can be your foot in the door,” he says. “Seeing that same therapist builds that relationship where all the meaningful things can happen – expressing those hard and difficult things that they might find hard to express otherwise. We also want to have fun as well.”

Not all patients take to the concept readily. “We’ve had patients who have said no for a really long time,” Northrup says. “Then, next thing you know, they’re one of your most requested patients.”

He recalls a teenage patient who was undergoing chemotherapy. “He was a big football fan and too cool for it. We’d talk about music therapy and he’d say no thanks. One day he said, ‘I want to make a music video.’ We made a music video. Even if the music doesn’t come first, you’re using the music to create relationships and opportunities.”

Northrup and Schreck have worked together to record music with some of their patients, even incorporating the patient’s heartbeat into some of their songs. “We can preserve their laughs, their voice,” Northrup says.

Adds Schreck: “That part is amazing. That creates a legacy. It allows families to hold on to those sounds indefinitely. We have a really awesome privilege – these people welcome us into their space.”

Research into music therapy and its uses continues around the world. “It’s an actual proven therapy,” says Schreck. “We’re not just musicians who have a kind heart and want to volunteer in the hospital.” VT