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Using Music to Heal: MSU Music Therapy program first of its kind

Monday, October 1, 2007

Be it jazz, pop, country, rock ’n’ roll or your own creation of notes, music is a part of life. Music is everywhere, from listening to your favorite song on your iPod or overhearing someone else’s radio as they drive by. There are certain songs that can trigger specific memories we may have long forgotten. With the different rhythms, chords, bass lines and pitches we can conjure up all kinds of emotions.

Could your favorite melody help in treating substance abuse or cope with the affects of Alzheimer’s disease? Does music have the power to heal? Music therapy faculty and students in Michigan State University’s music therapy program believe that music therapy interventions can boost the healing process and are working to bring the field of Music Therapy to the next level, one beat at a time.

“It is an old field that has grown so much,” said Cindy Edgerton, a music therapist in the Community Music School at MSU. “The field started with veterans during World War II and now has increased to so many areas, including patients in hospitals and workshops for businessmen,” Edgerton said.

Edgerton received her master’s degree in music therapy in 1981 and had to create her own job. Now graduates of the program are likely to find employment in a health care facility, such as a psychiatric hospital or a cancer treatment center, or in private practice.

The music therapy program at the MSU College of Music was established in 1944 as the first of its kind in the world. The program is designed to provide an environment that nurtures growth in students’ lives at the intellectual and musical levels while promoting excellence in music therapy practice and development of new knowledge through research.

The potential of music therapy is recognized as a healing force for individuals, groups and society, and emphasizes the importance of creativity and innovation as essential elements of music therapy practice and research.

“There is a basic, primitive part of us that likes to respond to music, as well as our intellectual and artistic side,” said Roger Smeltekop, associate professor of music therapy and supervisor of the Music Therapy Clinic at MSU.

The field of music therapy is not completely understood yet, but for example, by flooding the sensory system with other sensations, the perception of pain may be blocked. This is called the ‘Gate-Control Mechanism.’

“Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that,” said Smeltekop, “but music stimuli have been used quite successfully as an analgesic for pain.”

Music engages us in social, interpersonal, sensory and physical activity, as well as taps into memory.

Immobile or semi-conscious late-stage Alzheimer’s patients often benefit from physical touch and auditory stimulation.

“The links still seem to be there,” said Smeltekop about the response of Alzheimer’s patients to music. “Sometimes a non-verbal patient will be able to sing a complete song.” Smeltekop also said that physical activity, such as dancing, is beneficial for some patients in such areas as motor planning, coordination or agility.

Not only does the program offer care to clients, MSU’s music therapy program offers a unique experience for students to get hands-on interaction with patients from the moment they begin classes. Students do clinical work in the MSU Music Therapy Clinic, which started in 1969 and is now directed by Smeltekop and Edgerton.

“It’s convenient for students to come to the music school rather than get on a bus to go somewhere else (to do their clinical practicum),” Edgerton said.

They work closely with board certified supervisors, and by their junior year are making their own therapy plans for clients who have special needs. All plans are approved by a supervisor to ensure that clients are getting proper care. The program also facilitates a bridge between the community and music therapy students through assignments in local hospitals and nursing homes.

The goal of any music therapist is to relieve patients’ pain and suffering. “We want to make patients’ lives as comfortable and meaningful as possible,” Smeltekop said.

For more information about the program, visit the College of Music Web site