Music therapy in the treatment of neurological disorders

In the last two decades, researchers have seen enormous advances in our understanding of how music is processed by the human brain.  

“We now know that humans respond to music using specialized brain pathways that overlap with those involved with language processing, confirming the intimate relationship between music and linguistic characteristic of poetry, chant, and song,” explain the Principal Investigators of the Peter Wall International Research Roundtable on neurodegenerative disorders and music therapy.

They called that conference Bending the Knotted Oak after a passage about the reputed power of music that opens a 1697 drama by Congreve.

The purpose of the 2014 Roundtable was to determine the most relevant research questions around the science underlying the therapeutic applications and benefits of music therapy in the treatment of neurological conditions.  

Music therapy Roundtable participants came from all over Canada, the USA, Europe and the UK. From left to right in the back row:Jon Stoessl, Robin Hsiung, Rena Sharon, Edward Roth, Larry Frisch, Eckhardt Altenmuller, Jayne Standley, Carolyn Kenny, Julian Thayer, Geoff Bird. From left to right in the front row: Laurel Trainor, Carole Stipelman, Katharine Wright, Jennifer Nichol, Susan Summers, Jason Warren, Beth Clark.

“There is now a large and growing evidence base showing that music therapy has impact on a variety of neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative disorders, including stroke and other acquired brain injury. Much is known, much new knowledge still needs to find its way into daily practice, and a great deal remains to be discovered,” explains says Larry Frisch, one of the Roundtable PIs and Associate Professor in the UBC School of Population and Public Health.

A year later in May 2015, the scholars and other colleagues met again at the Peter Wall International Research Colloquium to present some of their recent work.

Dr. Susan Summers – who is a practicing music therapist and a faculty member at Capilano University – discussed parts of her dissertation thesis, Portraits of Vocal Psychotherapists: Singing as a Healing Influence for Change and Transformation. The purpose of her study was to explore how singing is a healing influence for change and transformation. She conducted qualitative search and analyzed the lives of five music therapist to learn about the role of singing in their lives and how it has affected their own change and transformation.

The International Research Colloquium also gave some of the Roundtable participants the opportunity to meet again to further advance the objectives of the Roundtable.

An article is currently in preparation by Carolyn Kenny and Susan Summers for publication in the journal Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. 

A specific research collaboration has been proposed involving management of anxiety in adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and plans have been made made to go forward with this research.

The group has also opened conversations with academic leadership at several public and private learning institutions in the greater Vancouver area about the formation of a local Master’s program involving both music therapy and medicine.  

Frisch expressed his excitement about the power of music in the application of human health.

“We think of music today very much as something that appeals to the emotions and makes us happy, makes us sad or makes us excited, or is our national anthem so it makes us feel tied to our community,” he says. “But for most of modern times music has been something that really is much more closer in line to science. Mathematics and music were very much tied and Bending the Knotted Oak really implies that there is power to music and that power isn’t just an esthetic power, it is power that relates us to the mechanisms of the universe.”

During the 2014 Roundtable, the PIs presented a public film screening of the Canadian documentary, The Gift of Music.