reFramed S2 E4: Reframed with Heart and Harmony

Music in the Heart and Mind

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Music can bring back a memory in under a minute and it quickly becomes part of a person’s new memories and heart. Music is all around us playing on our radios, our favorite shows, and the advertisements on our televisions. Music pours from social channels, memes, and GIFs on the internet. It can be found in restaurants and bars. We hear it blasting during sporting events and while walking through stores. Schools promote it through concerts and plays and play it during gym class. We find it in waiting rooms, on the phone for customer service, playing outside storefronts, and even in elevators. 

It’s no surprise then that research has shown that music can play a very powerful role in therapy, both neurologically focused in the brain and emotionally focused in the heart. 

According to Musictherapy.org the earliest known reference to music therapy dates back to 1789 in an article that appeared in Columbian Magazine called “Music Physically Considered.”

The American Music Therapy Association defines music therapy as “an established health profession in which music is used within a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals. … Music therapy also provides avenues for communication that can be helpful to those who find it difficult to express themselves in words.”

In Season 2 Episode 4 of the Gladney reFRAMED podcast, host Emily Morehead, LP, sits down with Heart & Harmony music therapists Sammi Graham, MT-BC, Annie Roberson, MT-BC, and Miranda Rex, MA, MT-BC, to talk about the power of music therapy as a positive motivator in working with children and adults, especially for children of foster care or adoption who are transitioning.

How Is Music Important in the Brain?

Board Certified Music Therapist Sammi explains that music is not designated for one specific part of the brain. She says that while we have designated areas of the brain for motor movement, memory, processing math problems, and assisting our emotional expression, music does not have a designated area and hits on all of these parts of the brain, which is why it has huge implications for therapy.

She talks about neuroplasticity, which according to MedicineNet is “the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life.” Sammi says this can be attributed to how and why music affects our whole body and can break through to people who may be experiencing trauma—be it the physical or emotional variety.

New research, she says, has shown that the brain is always growing and forming new neural connections. The brain forms these connections when we have new experiences. So what does this mean so far as music therapy goes?

Experiencing MusicWhat Does It Do in the Brain?

According to Sammi, when we experience music it activates our brain and creates a large hit of dopamine. Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter. Our bodies make it and our nervous system then uses it to send messages between nerve cells, according to WebMD; it’s sometimes referred to as a chemical messenger. Dopamine is often associated with pleasure and reward and can influence the way we think and plan.

We may not even realize it, but when we hear music, we begin to follow the rhythm because our bodies are musical and rhythmic even down to our speech patterns. So, this explains why we may start tapping our feet when a song that we know or love begins to play. And, in effect, that’s how neuroplasticity works on a musical level. 

Music Therapy and Dopamine Connection

Board Certified Music Therapist Annie has expertise with the brain and how it works as part of music therapy. “Because music is processed everywhere in the brain, when you hear it you get that dopamine, which is responsible for remapping parts of the brain and creating new experiences. This connection is so strong that it’s been shown to the point where someone who has experienced a stroke may be able to relearn certain physical functions.”

Can You Regulate a Child’s Heart with Music? 

The answer to this question according to Sammi is both a yes and a no. First of all, by regulation, we’re talking about emotional self-regulation to help a child in distress to better control his or her emotions and, in turn, help him or her to better handle and deal with situations. This emotional self-regulation would help to heal the child’s heart.

While music has been proven as a regulator, therapists must meet a child where he or she is at rather than forcing something specific that may be a mismatch or inappropriate for their current situation. And regulation through music may not happen right off the bat. In more complex situations where a child may be struggling especially hard, it’s important rather than jumping right to where you want them to be to start with something more simple like basic movement. Or in a case where a child may be feeling especially tense, perhaps starting with music to match that emotion at the start before gradually moving toward something more calming where you’re more likely to be able to reach meaningful communication would be best. 

One example of how music can have a profound impact is in working with children with autism because music is organized in nature. Music is engaging and can help with things like sensory overload. So it has proven to be very helpful in working with those with processing disorders or impairments to either play music or even just listen to it as part of sensory input (AKA the stimuli that are perceived by our senses), especially as a way to connect with nonverbal communicators. 

According to Sammi, “Music is a way to connect without having to use verbal speech.”

Music Therapy and Social Skills

Music therapy has been determined to be non-confrontational and a more comfortable way for therapists and others, including teachers and parents, to work on improving social skills. Sammi talks about musically encoded cues as a way to communicate directions or ask questions. In other words, musically conveying the message you wish to send. For example, she suggests singing a sentence rather than speaking it and talks about the Clean Up song many of us have heard from our teachers or parents. You may find yourself singing a sentence rather than speaking. 

Time to clean up everyone

Let’s pick up our things

Clean up

Everybody clean up, clean up

Everybody clean up

Time to clean.

As you read those lyrics ask yourself—did you say them or sing them? If you’ve ever heard this song before you may have found yourself singing or humming along rather than using your speaking voice. That’s because this song is a perfect example of a musically encoded cue that takes the edge off of an otherwise very standard command that many of us may not want to be told—especially when we’re children and would rather keep playing.

She further talks about how Mr. Rogers (AKA Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) mixed and matched his dialogue by incorporating music into it. “Music literally cues up your brain,” she says.

In addition to one-on-one settings, music therapy is effective in group settings as well, which can also feel a little less intimidating for a child who may be having an issue to open up to a therapy-type situation, make eye contact, or express feelings from his or her heart. Overall, a group setting can result in the same great results while feeling much less invasive.

Similar to meeting a child where he or she is at with music therapy and musical cues may require that you plan out and adjust as needed the level of cues at the beginning. It’s important not to cause more frustration by starting at a complex level that may feel frustrating and induce anxiety in a child. 

Music Therapy across Ages, Stages, and Settings

During her conversation with Annie, Emily inquires about how music therapy works with different stages of human growth and development.

According to Annie, music therapy works well in all kinds of different settings from babies in utero up to hospice care. She says you’ll find music therapy taking place in behavioral centers, schools, and correctional facilities.

She mentions that babies are exposed to sounds from the beginning and always listening in utero. Even if their listening experience is muffled, they learn to adapt, recognize, and remember voices, languages, and even regional dialects. She talks about how some excited parents choose to amplify the music they play for their baby by using headphones but cautions that this can be harmful and cause distress.

What about Babies Placed for Adoption—Is There a Longing for That Sound?

It has been shown that yes, babies who have been placed for adoption do long for the sounds that became familiar to them for up to nine months. 

As a result of this knowledge, some birth parents choose to make a Build-A-Bear or create an audiobook so that the adoptive parents can use these with their child to ensure the continuance of those sounds and hopefully an easier and less traumatic transition as the baby begins to bond with its new forever family.

She states simply that these types of actions on behalf of an adopted child can be “so impactful.”

NICU Babies and the Power of Music

If you’re still unsure about how music therapy plays a role in serving as a positive motivator as well as a transition method for adopted children or those in foster care, consider the fact that it is frequently used in NICUs.

It’s been proven that babies who receive music therapy gain weight, leave the hospital, and build neurological pathways faster than babies who do not receive music therapy. 

It has been found that most babies can’t tolerate more than four hours of music a day, so it is equally important that the music is played within specific parameters so it can be regulated and controlled. 

It’s important, Annie says, to have a board-certified therapist do this sort of thing for these reasons. They are trained to understand, recognize, and respond accordingly. It can be dangerous to conduct music therapy without a full appreciation or understanding of its impacts. And from the looks of it, these music therapists know their trade; they discovered that boy babies respond better to acapella whereas girls respond better to music that is accompanied by guitar. 

The power of music therapy goes so far as stabilizing heart rates and blood oxidation rates and bonding with the mom or the caregiver. Music therapists often incorporate physical contact when possible by performing a combination of lullaby singing and neurological massage.

And she says that babies will oftentimes let you know when they’ve had enough by doing the “stop hands” motion that they learn early on, which is similar to the motion for being fed and changed. 

When Is It Okay to Begin Music Therapy?

There is a protocol set in place based on babies’ gestational age and what they do on a day-to-day basis that determines when to formally begin music therapy and how much of it to do. Annie says that it’s better to start small to see what’s appropriate and what the child responds well to before slowly increasing the therapy. She explains that it’s not a one-size-fits-all but rather tailored to individual babies.

Music Therapy and Pain Relief

There are many reasons why parents may seek out music therapy for their baby, toddler, or older child. One of the first reasons is for babies who are born withdrawing from the mother’s drug usage while they were in utero.

Audio analgesic, she explains, is the relief of pain using music instead of pharmacological agents, especially when pharmacological agents could prove harmful to a child withdrawing from drug usage. Audio analgesic works with an understanding that the brain can only process one stimulus at a time, so people can use music to relieve pain without administering medication. 

On the flip side, this practice can and does work during labor. It is implemented, for example, during different stages of labor to match the mother’s heart rate and breathing and can be quite powerful. Music increases dopamine in the brain and facilitates the release of oxytocin, which is the natural chemical that sends a woman’s body into labor and releases a natural pain reliever as well.

And while it may not fully relieve the physical pain, music can feel like emotional support for women going through labor who may not have other levels of support, especially in a stressful hospital environment. Music serves to block sounds around women in labor and reduce stress. It sends a repetitive message that reduces tension and moves women to the resolution that they are going to be okay. Thus, music can heal the hearts of these particular women.

What Is a Womb Song?

She further describes birth moms working with therapists to write and create a womb song. A womb song is a piece of music that the birth mom creates and teaches to an unborn child during pregnancy. A birth mom can continue to sing and share this unique song long after birth as a bonding mechanism.

For babies placed for adoption at birth who may or may not have had a womb song, it’s not too late. Adoptive parents can create a song and make it a regular part of their family’s life together. For example, adoptive parents could write a lullaby song that they will sing together every night. This type of special song can become a very influential method of family bonding, creating harmonious bonds within the hearts of family members.

How Do Families Look for a Music Therapist?

Board Certified Music Therapist Miranda says that it’s important for parents to look for the MT-BC credential. While others may have partial credentials or a similar background, there is a difference and they are not technically doing music therapy.

As discussed with NICU babies, if music therapy is not done the right way, it can be harmful. This is especially true, according to Miranda, for kids who have experienced trauma. These children can be triggered by things as simple as male and female vocal voices together. In other cases, a song choice may take them back to a dark place in their life. The music therapist needs to know how to navigate those situations and also know what to look for ahead of time based on diagnoses to know how to proceed.

Using Music Therapy to Facilitate Brain Development and Help Heal the Heart to Mitigate Trauma in Foster Care and Adoption

Music is universal and allows for people to more easily form healthy relationships and connections. Music is especially important for these kids because it’s been consistent throughout their lives and stayed with them while everything else may have changed; music becomes part of their hearts.

Music is crucial in terms of forming healthy attachments because while other relationships may have come and gone, music is constant and belongs in the hearts of adopted children or those who are in foster care. No one can take music away. And with all of today’s technology, it’s everywhere.

In the Adoption.com article “Music Therapy Provides a Path to Healing for Kids in Adoption or Foster Care,” Melanie Barrier, who spent several years in foster care before founding Music That Reclaims, says, “Music therapy involves using instruments, singing, and different music styles. It helps someone express their emotions, which can lead to attachment and bonding between family members or between someone and a therapist. Most children who have been adopted or in foster care have experienced some form of trauma. It is very important to have outlets, such as music, through which they can express their feelings.”

Melanie describes a little red radio that served as her constant companion as she moved between 20 families before being adopted at age ten. The red radio became part of her life and close to her heart.

Creating Boundaries while Letting Kids Take Ownership

As a parent, you’ll have to be ready to have these conversations. Ask non-aggressive questions like, “You have some strong feelings coming through this music. Why do you relate to it?”

For many children, the answer may be that they are not able to express what is in their hearts or haven’t been able to feel that way up until now, so they use the music to feel heard because they’ve had no outlets. 

It comes down to navigating the boundary between music that makes us feel comfortable versus music that can be harmful to us and then to finding a compromise.

How Music Can Help with a Transition of the Heart

Bonding and transition are not easy, so working together with your child to figure out what songs will work in this process is a good thing. 

Should a child entering foster care or a forever family bring some not-so-nice music full of unhealthy lyrics and messages, parents need to recognize that this music may be all he or she has left to identify him or herself. And while it’s a parent’s job to make healthy choices on behalf of his or her children, it is also important to try and figure out why this music is so close to the child’s heart, however frustrating it may be at the first.

Use the opportunity to learn, bond, and grow together without being dismissive of your child’s feelings or his or her connection to the past through music felt. It may have been the one song that got him or her through a particularly dark and trying time in his or her life, and the child could feel something deep in his or her heart while listening to that music.

In many cases, it’s not so much the lyrics as it is the instrumentation or music. Parents can help their child to find a clean version of a song or find a song with a similar background but different words. Find what works and create a playlist that includes the hard stuff as well as what’s useful and effective for him or her to experience healing in his or her heart.

You don’t want to sound judgemental but instead sound understanding and on a mission to help. Otherwise, all your child will hear is that his or her music is inappropriate and bad. Your child may start to think that he or she is inappropriate and bad. Sounding judgemental could harm instead of healing your child’s heart.

How Can a Parent Implement Music Therapy?

Adding music makes most anything feel friendlier and kinder and can disarm a child who is ready for battle. Music can make chores feel not so much like chores. Rather, when parents pair music with something more taxing or less fun, the music can instead be a motivator.

If parents are working with a practice, they should ask questions about the practice and find out if music therapy will be something beneficial. Therapists will follow up with assessments to figure out a child’s needs and what he or she needs using different exercises to evaluate needs, communication, and motor skills.

If parents are not working with a practice, they should know that they don’t need to be a musician to engage in music therapy. Again, they should be careful implementing certain things without having the certifications to do so to avoid doing more harm than good, no matter their heartfelt intentions. It is highly recommended that whether they attempt to add music therapy into their family’s structure or seek out help from a therapist that they do their research and reach out to those who can help to make sure their journey will be healthy and successful.

Research shows that especially for kids in foster care, formal and informal music therapy is super helpful for development, self-esteem, and attachments—whether that means going to musicals or concerts together or watching musical presentations, shows, and videos on Youtube, music provides a special opportunity for family bonding in the heart.