Documentary 'Alive Inside' looks into music therapy used in recovery
Published: Saturday, April 28, 2012
Updated: Monday, August 27, 2012 17:08
An elderly man suffering from dementia sits in his wheelchair, his eyes downcast and his body language introverted. When asked a question, his response is a garbled, inanimate muttering. A lady places headphones over his ears: cue the magic. As if a spark shot through to his soul, the man starts dancing in his seat, eyes wide in ecstasy as he hums to the tune of an old classic. Now ask him a question, and his speech is clearer, his response animate. This is just one remarkable phenomenon in music and medicine.
The scenario described is a clip taken from the documentary, “Alive Inside,” which debuted in New York on April 18. The scene rapidly made Henry, the aforementioned gentleman, a YouTube sensation. Using his example along with others, the film illustrates music’s effects on the elderly who are suffering from degenerative diseases. It’s apparent that music reconnects or reactivates parts of the brain. However, people have long known of the effects of music on the brain.
“The video exemplifies how powerful music can be-more than just an adrenaline rush, but in a therapeutic sense,” said Tyler Rentsch, 22, a student at Columbia College.
For nearly half a century, music has been paired with psychology to produce music therapy. This is different from merely listening to music, as portrayed in “Alive Inside,” because it has a therapeutic angle. The official definition given by the American Music Therapy Association is, “an established health profession in which music is used within a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs of individuals.” Therapy can take place in hospitals, hospices, schools, homes and psychiatric settings.
Music therapist, Laura Pawuk, describes just a few of the ways music can help the ill. In patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia, music stimulates language and speech, movement, memory and nonverbal communication. In cancer patients, it reduces pain and anxiety, and helps the body process chemotherapy by reducing shortness of breath. Music can ease depression, gives patients a sense of control, but most importantly, transport them into a safer realm, where at least momentarily, they can forget the grim reality.
From a neurological standpoint, music extraordinarily impacts regions of the brain. In stroke victims, it can create new passageways around areas damaged during stroke. There’s also the phenomenon in which a person who is unable to speak is somehow able to sing. So is the story of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
After a bullet greatly damaged the left hemisphere of her brain, where language largely lies, Giffords turned to music therapy to rewire the brain in order to talk again. It started with saying words in a song-song voice, working down to a chant, until she was eventually able to talk naturally. Who would have thought that simple renditions of “Happy Birthday” could lead to fully redeveloping speech? It’s because music stimulates multiple regions in both hemispheres of the brain, and finds passageways around damaged sections.
Adjunct professor at DePaul’s School of Music, Dr. Nicole Rivera, is a board certified music therapist who specifically worked with children with autism. After assessing the needs of the clients, she would then use music to develop communication and social skills, or help them through different problems.
“There are lots of different models, but what I would do is engage the clients in active music making,” said Dr. Rivera. “I used guitar, voice, piano and a variety of percussion, based on who I was working with and the type of setting.”
Because music is motivating and provides structure, it can be used to build interpersonal relationships for kids with autism. With music, kids can find a sense of safety and a connection.
“Alive Inside” and Gifford’s example have given us a good look into the world of music and its healing powers. Whether music’s simply being played to you, or you’re the one playing an instrument, there’s no doubting that major stimulations are going on in your brain. Music penetrates so deeply and stirs miraculous responses in even the most unresponsive patients, be it a small smile or a tap of the foot. Though seemingly minor, such movements are considered milestones in severally ill patients.
“It strikes a chord with me particularly because my grandma is dealing with dementia right now,” said Rentsch. “It makes me wonder, what if I did this to my grandma. What would the reaction be, would it be just like that? It hits close to home.”
Henry, the beloved face of music and medicine, captures it all with his simple message: “It gives me the feeling of love, of romance. I figure right now the world needs to come into music, singing. You’ve got beautiful music here.”