Music for a healthy mind

By Isabelle Ferrante

After the death of his father, Justin Webb met with countless therapists but traditional therapy did not fill the void he felt after the loss. A grief counselor recommended that he try music therapy, where a patient uses music to process trauma. Through this, coping with the death of his father became more bearable.

“Music therapy can be more comfortable because sometimes I may not be comfortable talking about a certain topic or a certain subject in regular therapy that you can express through music therapy,” Webb said.

Therapists will use a client’s responses and connections to music to encourage positive changes in their mood and overall well-being. It benefits people of various musical experience levels and different mental health challenges. It is also personalized which makes treatment look different from person to person.

When therapy can be seen as a less traditional, less scary kind of way of accessing mental health, it can speak volumes.

Julia St. Cyr

Webb began bereavement support at the Carpenter Hospice after his father’s death. But for him, it was writing lyrics to his own music that seemed to be his choice of therapy. 

“At first, we just worked on instruments and music like that, and then I started coming up with different colloquialisms or wisdom. And [the therapist] started to write some stuff down and said, ‘you have a gift for writing lyrics’,” he said.

Being able to be creative and having the ability to use his own words and turn them into a song is what he believes was passed down to him from his late father. 

“My father was a big poetry writer back in the day, and I think sort of in the way his poetry helped him to get feelings out, it allowed me, in turn, through music.”

Webb was guided on his journey by Registered Psychotherapist and Certified Music Therapist Adrienne Pringle. She was the former president of the Canadian Association of Music Therapists (CAMT), and currently provides music therapy services with CHM Therapy in Milton, Ont., Wilfrid Laurier University, and Concordia University. Pringle said music is more than what it seems because it has several properties that can help with mental health.

  Music connects us to ourselves, it integrates our parts and it connects us as human beings,” Pringle said.

She said our bodies respond to music through the chemicals released in our brains.

“When you listen to music that you enjoy, your brain releases dopamine. And we also know that serotonin and oxytocin are stimulated, so the bonding hormone and calming hormone. And then we also know that cortisol decreases. That’s the stress hormone,” she said.

She added that the genre people listen to can have effects on the body. Instrumental music, at 60 to 80 beats per minute, is also an adult’s resting heart rate, which creates a sense of calm. 

This is why music therapy is used in many kinds of clinical settings like hospitals, long-term care homes, substance abuse and addiction centers, schools, hospices, and private practices.

Music therapy is very much using music as a tool, and it can be music as therapy. So, the music is actually what’s doing the work in the therapy, and no one has to have musical training to engage in music therapy, Pringle said. 

According to Music Therapist Julia St. Cyr, most settings of music therapy can consist of either group or one-on-one sessions participating in a wide range of activities. These activities can vary from people simply discussing their favourite songs to singing, listening to music and engaging in musical improvisation. Sometimes clients will play an instrument like the guitar, piano, or drums and other times look at lyric analysis or lyric substitution. She said each of these methods has been shown to have positive effects on the patient’s mind.

St. Cyr had a client who found lyric substitution to be their way of processing trauma. In the session, they listened to the song together but her client suggested that “tweaking” a certain lyric to resonate with her own life was most relatable to them.

“Music can be used to match that mood so that people can kind of sit with it,” she said. “And have it be used for matching that energy and then finding comfort in it.”

Many clients St. Cyr helps through music therapy are very similar. People have told her that they want to listen to sad music when they also feel sad, but St. Cyr said it’s completely normal due to something called the “ISO principle.” 

A 2021 Berlin Institute of Biomusicology and Empirical Research (BIBER) study said the ISO principle incorporates listening to music that matches the current mood of patients at first and then gradually shifts to music that represents a desired mood.

This is something St. Cyr implements in her therapy sessions at Shine Music Company.

“If somebody walks in and they’re feeling really sad, we might just start with sad, melancholy and then lift it from there so that they’re able to work toward better goals,” she said.

However, St. Cyr said music might not always be used to improve someone’s mood, and in some cases, dig up old trauma. 

“A lot of the time, [music] can be triggering too, so it might bring you back to a memory where you don’t want to be. Depending on the tempo or how heavy the bass is, it can actually increase anxiety,” she said.

A study from the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) highlighted that because music activates certain regions of the brain, including those associated with emotion and memory, the music people choose to listen to should be preserved for those neural pathways that can connect music with positive feelings rather than traumatic ones.

Julia St. Cyr said this could push music therapy forward and leave traditional therapy behind.

“When therapy can be seen as a less traditional, less scary kind of way of accessing mental health, it can speak volumes,” she said. “For anybody who’s looking for a gentle or non-verbal approach, it really encourages people to tap into their inner creativity and explore themselves in a different way that isn’t so rigid or intimidating.” 

Related Posts

How to get a job in fashion magazine

The truth about working in the fashion industry could be told only by those who have got a taste of the competitive and constantly changing fashion world. 

The costs of online betting

Linval Thomas, a 42-year-old Brampton resident, said that his gambling habit started small and he didn’t expect it to become an issue. 

Experts give tips for people on a budget in the Toronto area

Living in the Toronto and GTA area can be difficult to balance your budget. It costs the average person about $4,000 a month to live in the city.

The increasing affordability of zero-emission vehicles

Paul Minstrell became intrigued with electric cars when they first arrived on the market. According to Nissan, the first mass-market electric vehicle called “Leaf” came to the market in 2010. 

The fight to decriminalize drugs

Zoey Medland is a harm reduction worker for Street Health, a Toronto-based community organization that provides health care and support services to vulnerable people.

Everyone needs a superhero

Maja Burza was 10 years-old when she became a Marvel superfan. It happened after she saw her first Spider-Man movie. Seeing superheroes who have the same struggles and experiences as ordinary people makes her feel closer to the characters.