Time and Rhythm

9th March 2018

It is rare to have absolute silence, explains music therapist Dr Stella Compton Dickinson, in this introduction to six ways in which music can improve our well-being. Music is all around us, made up of vibrations of different frequencies, heard in the sounds of nature: the sea, the birds. Even the electrical sound of the fridge has a frequency that hums. Within the universe, the musical elements of ‘time’ and ‘rhythm’ are involved in, for example, the way the earth and the moon interact with the cycle of the tides, day, night and month – and with the energies that may affect our bodies. In eastern philosophy the mystery of the beginning of all life is understood as starting with the beginning of a single vibration, to which there was a response – thus creating a resonance. People may either ‘resonate’ in harmony with each other or grate on each other’s nerves. The way people interact with each other is called ‘psychodynamics’ – and music has dynamics too, dictating whether it is loud (and scary or emboldening) or soft (and gentle or tremulous) or anything in between…

1. Music Listening:
Music is an art form available to almost every human being. Anyone can explore safe and appropriate ways in which music can lift their mood. Indeed, in public places, such as certain London Underground Stations, classical music is played to enhance a calm mood across a busy, crowded environment where people might otherwise get stressed and then become more aggressive. Healthcare practitioners frequently use music to stimulate a better ambient mood, in, say a secure hospital unit. Be warned, though: the same piece of music will affect different individuals in different ways.

2. Music to promote memory and life review:
Pre-recorded music has associations to times and places in our lives. If we hear a song from a different time in our life it can bring back all those old feelings: romantic, sad, happy, funny. Music can make us feel nostalgic and it can therefore make us laugh or cry, feel warm and loving or uncomfortable and full of regret. When we work therapeutically with recorded music it is important to understand the client’s taste and let him choose music that has significant meaning to him, rather than imposing a personal choice. If elderly people hear a favourite old song it can bring back happier times; often they can recall lyrics they may not have been thought about in ages. It offers access to memories that the client can enjoy sharing. This is important in helping him/her to have a sense of continuity across their life-span and then to orientate them to all that they have done, decade by decade.

3. Music and Movement to reduce anxiety:
Whether music is played on a hospital ward, in a Zumba or Pilates class, a religious ceremony, or a military cavalcade, it underpins the movements and pace of events through the tempo, rhythms, mood and harmonies.
Running and exercise releases endorphins known as ‘happy’ hormones. A playlist of suitable tracks can both energise and then calm people – for example, during physical exercise classes followed by relaxation and meditative music to finish.

I always encourage my clients to develop a varied exercise routine because using our bodies can calm our minds, improve co-ordination and balance and reduce the symptoms of anxiety. Without physical activity, one’s thoughts and worried feelings may get caught up and can start to fester inside us. These experiences need an appropriate outlet.
The type of mental difficulty that presents as the avoidance of social events, for example, is often attributable to unprocessed energy. Music therapy is a wonderful way of expending this: clients move about the room to play drums or tuned percussion or smaller instruments, rather than just sitting in a chair. Moving and being creative can help people to extend themselves and to be more spontaneous in having fun, and then they frequently want to start to understand themselves better.

4. Learning an Instrument for global mental improvements:

Practising a musical instrument is associated with enhanced verbal ability, the ability to work things out and improved motor co-ordination. This is because many components and hours of discipline are involved in becoming accomplished. The degree of success depends on many factors, of course, including the teaching techniques, the levels of parental support for the child, or for an adult learner to have both a witness to his efforts as well as undisturbed practice time. I have taught my instrument, the oboe, all my adult life and I apply some neuro-scientific therapeutic principles to this teaching.

Let me tell you the story of Irvine (not his real name), who was eleven and had just scraped into the school where I taught. He had tried the drums at primary school and this had done nothing for him. A child needs to find the right quality of tone in choosing his instrument. Irvine was an unusual and sensitive child, who didn’t seem to have a sense of rhythm, and so I worked to instil a steady pace, demonstrating firstly so that he could copy me. The aim was to find his inner rhythm and pace. Even when he had learned only two notes we could play a duet together, as I created harmony around his two long notes.

So, he learned to read music whilst feeling safe and supported, at the same time as blowing and moving his fingers. There’s a lot to think about. By the end of his first year he had moved academically from the bottom of the lowest set of kids in his year into the top set. Individual instrumental lessons gave him the confidence he needed to be better co-ordinated physically, with improved attention span and greater ability of mental processing.

5. Music Making with others for improved sociability:

Irvine who had difficulties socialising – but then he found that he was needed in the school band. He started to make new friends, and this helped build his self-esteem. He had a new hobby and could play in the local amateur orchestra and go on tours with the youth orchestra; music helped him to learn to bond with his peers in a shared activity and goal. Irvine used to struggle with his academic work but he got into a good university to train in an unrelated subject and instead of being the odd one out, he became the admired super-star when playing his English Horn (Tenor Oboe) in the University Orchestra.

6. Musical Improvisation in music therapy for improving and sustaining mental health:

The greatest form of improvised music is Jazz, and we can learn a lot about the structure of improvised music from great musicians such as Miles Davis. Music Therapy in the United Kingdom is a masters level training and central in this model is jointly creating improvised music that fits the mood, time and place. The music therapist is a skilled musician but she (or he) does not show off; the therapist is there to help the natural creative abilities of any individual start to come through. This is wonderful because all patients can have a go - even if they have never seen a real musical instrument. This experience can be exciting rather than frightening when it is offered sensitively and with respect.

Music Therapy is particularly effective for people who live with schizophrenia; it helps with mental organisation because music alone can cross the bridge between the two hemispheres of the brain, thereby integrating emotional responses and cognitive thinking processing. Once a person has expressed their inner feelings non-verbally through jointly creating music within a trusting therapeutic relationship –then they may be able to more easily recognise what they are feeling and start to find the right words to be able to talk about their problems, and thereby receive help from others.

About the author: Dr Stella Compton-Dickinson is a London-based Health and Care Profession council registered music therapist, accredited supervisor, professional oboist and lecturer, UK Council for Psychotherapy registered Cognitive Analytic Therapist and Supervisor. She is author of ‘The Clinician’s Guide to Forensic Music Therapy’ (Jessica Kingsley Publishers), and has her own private practice and twenty years’ experience in the National Health Service as a Clinician, Head of Arts Therapies and Clinical Research Lead her research was awarded the 2016 Ruskin Medal for the most impactful doctoral research. • stellacompton.co.uk

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