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The Healing Power of Music

February 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
An unconventional approach to recovery and coping, music therapy is a field of medicine capturing new attention due to its role in helping Gabrielle Giffords recover from a gunshot. Correspondent Spencer Michels reports on the versatility of music in a medical setting, but the difficulty of quantifying its effectiveness.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: a report on the power of music therapy in treating brain injuries and helping patients recover.

It’s a field of science and medicine which has captured new attention because of its role in helping Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords recover from her serious brain injury.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

SPENCER MICHELS: When Rep. Gabrielle Giffords returned to Washington for this year’s State of the Union address, it was clear she had made a dramatic recovery after being shot in the head a year ago. Her family credits music therapy for helping to get her voice back.

REP. GABRIELLE GIFFORDS, D-Ariz.: With liberty and justice for all.

SPENCER MICHELS: Giffords’ treatment with specially trained music therapists has called new attention to a field that’s been around at least 100 years.

While research on the neurological effects of music therapy is in its infancy, what is known is that a number of regions in the brain are activated by listening to music. And scientists say the brain responds to music by creating new pathways around damaged areas.

MEAGAN HUGHES, music therapist: Just give it a tap. There it is.

MICHAEL HENDRICKS JR., suffers from muscular dystrophy: Change it.

MEAGAN HUGHES: Change that?

MICHAEL HENDRICKS JR.: Yes.

MEAGAN HUGHES: Do you think that gets higher? It’s all right?

SPENCER MICHELS: Music is now being used to help patients with a wide variety of illnesses not just brain trauma.

That’s the case with 16-year-old Michael Hendricks Jr. of Pinole, California, who has muscular dystrophy, a disease that progressively weakens the muscles.

Meagan Hughes, a music therapist, has been working with him at the Benioff Children’s Hospital at the University of California, San Francisco.

MEAGAN HUGHES: Due to his condition, there’s a lot that he doesn’t have control over. And so we use music as a means to help him get in touch with that control.

SPENCER MICHELS: Do you see it working?

MEAGAN HUGHES: I think that hopefully we all saw it working today. I think that was evidenced through Michael’s smiles, through his focus on the music-making process.

MICHAEL HENDRICKS JR.: Get some food. Then I’m going home because I’m tired, because I’m tired.

SPENCER MICHELS: Hendricks’ father also believes music, in his case, rap or hip-hop, is one of the few ways to reach his son.

MICHAEL HENDRICKS, father: He has got a new pair of headphones to listen to his favorite music, which is Lil Wayne and Drake. Okay? He definitely has music in his brain all the time. He loves the beats.

SPENCER MICHELS: So, can you tell if music helps in his situation, with his mood or with anything?

MICHAEL HENDRICKS: Yeah. It helps in his attitude. He kind of mellows out. And he doesn’t think about his medical problems.

MEAGAN HUGHES: What did I just do with my hand when we were playing?

GIRL: You were going up and down to make this noise sound louder.

SPENCER MICHELS: Hughes works for the Center for Music National Service. The program sends therapists into hospitals and schools to expand the use of music.

The program is the brainchild of musician Kiff Gallagher, who worked on AmeriCorps in the Clinton administration.

KIFF GALLAGHER, Center for Music National Service: It’s definitely been shown that music can make a positive impact on people suffering from early-onset dementia, kids with autism, with veterans who are coming back and trying to learn to walk without a limb.

SPENCER MICHELS: Music therapy professor Eric Waldon, who teaches at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., says he’s seen and studied patients with brain injuries where music makes a difference, as it apparently did in former Representative Giffords’ case.

ERIC WALDON, professor of music therapy, University of the Pacific: It’s the rhythmic aspects of music that are providing that structure, that organization within time that are allowing her to learn to walk again or to gain speech sounds.

I think what we find in people that have had brain injuries, sometimes it’s easier for them to sing words, rather than to say words. Music is providing that pathway or almost like a cerebral bypass around the damaged areas, allowing someone to regain mobility or regain speech.

SPENCER MICHELS: A growing number of studies do suggest music can aid healing in various ways.

One recent scientific paper out of Harvard showed music therapy helped stroke patients regain speech. And other studies found music may improve heart and respiratory rates and blood pressure, as well as anxiety and pain in cancer and leukemia patients.

MAN: Listen. Now, where does it go? Where does it go?

SPENCER MICHELS: Dr. Rob Goldsby, a pediatric oncologist at Benioff Children’s Hospital, has seen that happen.

DR. ROB GOLDSBY, Benioff Children’s Hospital: Music therapy quite literally can soothe the soul, I think helps them get through the process of cancer therapy. They have to endure the pokes and prods of exams and the multitude of tests that they have to go through, the vile chemotherapy they have to endure, the vicious radiation and surgery.

SPENCER MICHELS: But scientifically studying quantifying and proving the effects of music therapy on patients with different ailments and different treatments presents a big challenge, says Julene Johnson, a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience at the University of California.

JULENE JOHNSON, University of California, San Francisco: One of the challenges in doing clinical research is actually getting a homogeneous enough group to really look at the effects of an intervention on a group of patients. I think we’re still really trying to understand the mechanisms that influence the therapeutic effects of music.

SPENCER MICHELS: Johnson has been studying how music appears to lower depression rates among senior members of choirs in Finland. She says music can actually change the brain.

JULENE JOHNSON: There now are several studies showing that participating in music has an impact on the structure of the brain.

SPENCER MICHELS: And involvement in music can benefit anyone, says Heidi Clare Lambert, a fiddle player who teaches folk dancing to health professionals as a means of healing.

HEIDI CLARE LAMBERT, musician-dancer: One of the things in healing is a frame of mind, correct? You have to get the — you have to get the will of the person. It’s not about the technique. It’s about enjoying, about moving, about just being in the moment.

SPENCER MICHELS: And is this in your opinion a kind of — a form of therapy?

HEIDI CLARE LAMBERT: Absolutely, I believe unequivocally.

SPENCER MICHELS: But dancing or singing is not strictly music therapy argues Eric Waldon at the University of the Pacific.

ERIC WALDON: It isn’t Johnny went to choir and Johnny got better. It’s that Johnny has a music therapist, and together, with the music therapist, he got better.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Johnny taking part in a chorus actually could be therapeutic, couldn’t it?

ERIC WALDON: Absolutely, it could. But it’s not music therapy. The term therapy itself says that there’s a therapeutic relationship and there’s an intentional use of music to address non-musical goals.

SPENCER MICHELS: The University of the Pacific has one of 73 music therapy programs in the country. Students in the four-year program are already musicians when they arrive on campus.

WOMAN (singing): You say stop, and I say go, go, go.

SPENCER MICHELS: At a Stockton school for medically fragile, severely disabled children, music therapy students are trying to engage those with special needs. Even with this hard-to-reach group, Professor Waldon argues, the therapy has an effect.

ERIC WALDON: Music can provide a mechanism for children with developmental disabilities to communicate.

What we know about the brain science in general is that whenever you experience something new, new brain connections are being made. What you’re doing is you’re providing an opportunity for them to grow new pathways within their brain.

WOMAN (singing): Will you high-five, say hello?

Hi, Lexi. Can you high-five to say hello? Nice, smiling.

MAN: High-five. Up here.

WOMAN: Up high. Yes. Nice high-five.

SPENCER MICHELS: The fact that music often can encourage and stimulate patients who are hard to reach has spurred scientists to delve deeper into how it affects the brain and how that knowledge can be used to improve the therapy it provides.

WOMAN (singing): We’re glad you’re here. We’re going to have some fun.