Michel Foucault wrote in History of Madness (1964), “What appears to our modern eyes as an embryonic sketch of psychological cure was no such thing for the classical physicians who applied it. Since the Renaissance, music had been associated in Antiquity.” He noted in particular a case in which a therapist cured a man who had ‘sunk into a profound state of melancholy’ by making him listen to ‘concerts of instruments of which he was particularly fond’.
Everyone’s felt the release that accompanies music, that unique introspection certain compositions can conjure. I say toe-tapping and head tingling, but some folks use music to engage an assortment of needs. Curious to learn about this growing form of therapy, I sought out Nikki and David Belshe of Heart and Harmony Music Therapy in Fort Worth. They were kind enough to share their insights. Newborn daughter Magnolia offered quiet counterpoint to our conversation.
Though the practice dates back historically, the modern therapeutic discipline has been around for 70 years. Recent gains in radiological technology, like fMRI and PET Scans, allow health care providers to understand active brain functions more clearly than ever before. To illustrate the applications of such advancements, David Belshe refers to Charles Limb’s TED Talk, “Your Brain on Improv”, and Nikki reminds me of Gabby Gifford’s miraculous transformation recovering from a gunshot wound to her brain.
The Belshes met at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. Nikki was following the path of a classical vocalist before making the transition towards therapy. David’s prior musical experiences had focused on bands until he discovered his niche, “It allows me to be a performing musician who enjoys the social aspects of music without being some pretentious know-it-all guy. If I had done anything else, I wouldn’t have continued.”
Private practice allows them to select what cases they handle, often catering to the financial limitations of families struggling to keep up with special needs. Working with clients along the Autism Spectrum, as well as those with physical limitations such as Cerebral Palsy, the Belshes value the respect implicit trust felt when entering a family’s house. In addition, doctors have also had success using music with Alzheimer’s patients as well as those suffering from brain trauma. Therapists use particular tunes, instruments and movements to connect with clients. The rigorous degree requires therapists are capable of playing a basketful of instruments and hundreds of songs. Often they engage the compositional process to aid development of new behaviors.
David explains, “What happens with families of special needs kids, when they’re in public and they lose control – everybody judges them, and you end up with families who increasingly close off their worlds. This allows there to be regular people walking around who have never known anyone with a disability, which is a real shame because it is such an amazing worldview.”
Nikki speaks with passion about the unique perspectives, “I have seen one boy for four years, and earlier this year, our intern was working with him and he began vocalizing intentionally for the first time. She would play a song that he liked and stop in the middle and just wait, and he would start humming encouraging her to continue. He’s fifteen years old.”
Music is integral to human development and learned cues like melody and rhythm become tools, these inherent mechanisms engage powerful hooks. Neuroscientists refer to listening to music as a “whole brain activity”, because we now understand that beyond auditory functions music engages large-scale neural networks throughout the brain. Working with young and old alike on physical and cognitive needs, therapists share passion and talent in ways that directly improve lives. The positives go both ways as Nikki shared, “I love my job, I feel blessed. It is neat to see what kinds of things music can unlock for people because it is so inviting and people can connect to it.”