The power of music therapy

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin

Music as an avenue for recovery, a tool for personal betterment

Music is much more than just the content of a song or album; it has the potential to empower people and help improve their lives.

Music therapy is different from traditional therapy, where people talk to a therapist about their problems. “Music, because it affects you in a complicated fashion physically, emotionally, psychologically and cognitively all at the same time, sometimes helps break through these barriers of getting past that [problem],” said Sandi Curtis, a long-time music therapist and a professor at Concordia.

Sometimes people are not ready to talk about their traumatic experiences, so music can help them express themselves. When Curtis works with women who have survived psychological, physical or sexual abuse, music is an important tool that fosters the conversation. “It’s not me talking to them or them even talking to me,” Curtis explained. “Music makes that opening where, they might not be prepared yet to talk […], but they can put it into music.”

Curtis recounted the case of a woman who had been sexually abused by her uncle as a child. “The family was fractured. Half the family believed her, and the other half didn’t.”

Some music therapy programs encourage participants to write songs as a cathartic release. “When she finished writing and recording the song, she took the recording and gave it to her abuser, and she said: ‘You know the truth, and I know the truth,’” Curtis said. “That was a powerful moment for her, to get over the fact that half of her family was never going to believe her.”

Music is an outlet for deeply personal feelings and thoughts. Yet, before I spoke with Curtis, I didn’t know the impact music therapy could have. It was extraordinary to hear about the power of music in traumatic situations.

Although Curtis studied music at McGill, she knew performing and, at the time, teaching were not for her. “Back in the day, there wasn’t that much understanding or awareness of music therapy, but I did some exploration,” she said. “There were no programs in Canada at all.” Instead, she decided to study music therapy in the United States.

Curtis’s experience ranges from working in palliative care and the deaf community to working with people with disabilities, survivors of violence and domestic abuse, and even prison inmates in the United States. “I got an opportunity to work at a maximum security correctional facility for women in Georgia. That was quite interesting—I thought, at the time, that I was too much of a Canadian to handle it,” Curtis said with a laugh.

At the correctional facility, Curtis met women who had survived domestic abuse, women who used had violence to escape their abuser. “I began to see how much of an impact that male violence against women has in their lives,” Curtis said. “And that was way back in the day, before the #MeToo movement where we are beginning to understand that it’s in almost every woman’s life.”

During that time, she began to realize the power of music as therapy. “It’s a wonderful creative tool, but it also gives a voice,” Curtis said. “Survivors are so often silenced by their abuser. Music gives them a voice, a physical voice expressing how they’re feeling and a very powerful way of recovering from incredible trauma.”

Therapy sessions typically begin with listening to artists who sing about violence, which helps enforce the idea that survivors are not to blame for the violence enacted on them. “So often,” Curtis said, “survivors of violence think it’s their problem. They’re isolated purposely by the abuser; they are told it’s their fault.”

Curtis aims to integrate music that will resonate with the person when they listen to it. She noted that hearing artists like Beyonce and Lady Gaga sing about how they don’t deserve abuse can empower the patient to feel the same. “They could begin to think: ‘Oh, maybe I don’t deserve it too.’”

Next comes music creation, working together to make music and discussing the experience. People who attend music therapy sessions do not need any experience or background to participate in the music process. “In music therapy, all of you can be singing the same thing [in group sessions], and maybe sharing a common experience or maybe having completely different meaning of the experience,” Curtis said.

For her, the most important part of being a music therapist is using her musical talents to help people. “So, rather than being the audience far-removed and just applauding, you are working very intimately with somebody,” she said. “You’re helping them improve their quality of life.”

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin

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