Music therapist discusses music’s physical and mental benefits

By Carolina Garibay

People often say that music is the universal language. Music has the power to resonate with people and communicate ideas and emotions that words often cannot, and this power translates into other areas as well, such as therapy.

Buzz Magazine spoke with Sarah Scully, who has been a music therapist for 21 years and has experience playing the flute and piano. Scully realized that music therapy was her calling after observing a music therapist in Minneapolis. She went on to finish her degree in music therapy at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Scully primarily works with kids who have developmental disabilities, and she speaks about her experiences with clients and the unique ways music can help people both physically and mentally.

buzz: “How would you describe music therapy to someone who’s never heard of it before?”

SS: “Music therapy is using music to accomplish non-musical goals as a very basic description. We work in areas of fine motor and gross motor, and we work in areas of cognitive and communication and social, emotional and spiritual. When you look at the whole broad range of a person, music really affects all those areas, whether it’s playing music, listening to music or analyzing and talking about music. Music can be used in a lot of different areas. In fact, we all use music in different areas of our life, whether it’s playing an instrument and the act of learning how to play an instrument, like fifth-grade band, and all the way up to playing piano, and we listen to music to pump us up at a football game. We use music in so many stages of our life that it’s really a basic human accessible field for almost anybody.”

buzz: “What are some of the exercises or methods that you use in a music therapy session?”

SS: “When it comes to language processing and using language, songs with words obviously have language, and when you’re singing, you bypass the very typical speech center of the brain, and it becomes music. I’ve worked with clients who have had strokes, and oftentimes when you have a stroke you lose the ability to speak. I’ll never forget the first time I was in a hospital and a patient had had a stroke, and the whole family was quite emotional and this man had aphasia. Aphasia happens as a result when the left side of the brain is damaged and they can’t access the words to speak. But the power of music means oftentimes they can still sing. So, I walked in and said, ‘I’m the music therapist. May I sing with you all?’ and so they’re all kind of skeptical. I started playing ‘Amazing Grace,’ and he started singing every word. Every person in the room was just bawling because suddenly they were able to hear his words.”

buzz: “Wow, I can imagine that must’ve been emotional for all of you.”

SS: “I’ve had so many amazing experiences where you see the power of music and the brain’s ability to respond to music, and a lot of research has been done to be able to show how the brain responds to music during an fMRI scan, which parts of the brain are lighting up, they’ve been able to see that music increases the dopamine and serotonin in your brain and helps to reduce the cortisol, the stress hormones, so then you’re able to maybe work on your difficult situations more easily.”

buzz: “It sounds almost like physical therapy, so you know when you break an arm or something and you have to work building up those skills instead of speaking and language skills.”

SS: “And I want to say it’s not going to take the place of something like physical therapy. Obviously, you know we’re not trained to the extent that a physical therapist is, but rather how can I help them increase the flexibility of that joint range of motion through music. I’ve had lots of clients over the years with cerebral palsy where it’s not an urgent, ‘Help I broke my arm,’ but it’s a daily need. I remember I had a drum set at this one facility I worked at, and I put this kiddo in front of the drum set and we had to strap the mallets to his hands because he had difficulty maintaining the grasp, but boy, get those mallets in his hand and put them in front of a drum set, and he was reaching and playing and crossing midline and reaching up here, you know.”

buzz: “Do you also work with people who have mental health issues as well? How can music therapy be applied to those mental rather than physical issues as well?”

SS: “I did clinical in college, and it was in the jail, and the experience there was really quite remarkable. We did a lot with anger management. That was the class that the music therapists ran, and it was a men’s county jail, so some who were there for just a long period of time, and some were waiting to go to prison, and coming to my group was completely optional. It was really remarkable. I remember feeling so inadequate like here I am this young college student doing anger management in jail. What do I have in common with these guys? But the doors that were opening for communication for discussing through songs … music is powerful. There are so many heavy subjects that can be discussed through songs, some of them may not be appropriate for a therapy setting, but one of the songs I remember doing was the ‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters.’ I was able to take that song and say, ‘Okay, look, here’s your troubled waters. It could be drugs, it could be, violence, it could be theft. It can be all kinds of things. But you’re in jail because of those waters, so your bridge really has to be secure. What can be on your bridge?’ And really, the communication and the conversation that flowed all because of the impetus of that song was really powerful because they ended up seeing the errors in each other’s ways, and we were able to really discuss the subjects that probably wouldn’t have come up quite as easily as saying, ‘So tell me what got you into jail?'”

buzz: “What are some of the benefits of music therapy that you might not see with other therapies?”

SS: “Music is one of the only things that we do that uses our entire brain. When we’re engaged with music, everything in your brain is working, so like I said with the speech, after the stroke, you’re going to have a physical response to music, you’re going to have an emotional response to music, and if there are words you have a cognitive language response to music and then just simply your emotional response. Pretty soon the whole brain is being used with music, whereas there are very few other things we do in life that use the whole brain all at the same time.”

Scully works at the Stephen’s Family YMCA in Champaign where she’s been a music therapist for eight years.