"Music therapy" claims an extremely wide range of potential benefits; and thus, its practitioners say, it can be of assistance to everyone from the elderly to "teens at risk"; and from AIDS and cancer patients to those suffering from "stress" and substance abuse. Even the "hearing impaired" are listed as being appropriate patients. Music therapists, it should be noted, don't generally go so far as to claim to provide an alternative to conventional medicine, but rather a compliment to it. Nonetheless, their discipline is worth scrutinizing if only for the light it will shed on the meaning of 'therapy'; a word which ( like 'toxin') is widely abused.
It's a field which strikes me as having one foot rooted in reality and the other in the fanciful: the Music Therapy Association of British Columbia's (MTABC) website states right up front that "the therapeutic effects of music have been known since the beginning of time", as if such hyperbolic nonsense were an effective means of accruing credibility. But the Canadian Association for Music Therapy (CAMT) presents a harder target. For example, summarizing the benefits of one of their "intervention techniques" they write that:
Singing is a therapeutic tool that assists in the development of articulation, rhythm, and breath control. Singing in a group setting can improve social skills and foster a greater awareness of others. For those with dementia, singing can encourage reminiscence and discussions of the past, while reducing anxiety and fear. For individuals with compromised breathing, singing can improve oxygen saturation rates. For individuals who have difficulty speaking following a stroke, music may stimulate the language centres in the brain promoting the ability to sing.When I first read this I thought it sounded reasonable enough (except for the final sentence, which I still find intriguingly mysterious - maybe they mean: "promoting the ability to speak"? Or do their patients relearn to sing, but not to talk? How hellish would that be?).
After all, I can see how singing might aid the "development of breath control" if, for whatever reason, that become important; and my poor Grandfather, who tragically developed dementia, seemed to be able to recall the words to his favorite songs even after losing the ability to consistently recognize his close family members, suggesting to me that this information is stored in a part of the brain that had been less effected by his illness. For all I know, mentally exercising this healthier portion of the brain by singing might actually do those in a similar situation some real good.
-the counterpoints-That said, is this enough to justify the term 'music therapy', which implies a medical intervention? In fact, even if one is generous enough to grant, for the sake of argument, that listening to and/or playing music has real, substantiated, and concrete effects on our health, is even this enough to justify word 'therapy'? As Dr. Steven Novella points out on his blog, Neurologica:
if you studied the effects of playing soccer on health you would find that people who play soccer are stronger, in better shape, have more endurance, probably weigh less, and have a host of better health outcomes than people who spend an equivalent amount of time sitting on the couch. Should we call this "soccer therapy?" I would consider this false precision. Better just to say that exercise is better than being sedentary for specific health outcomes. Likewise, engaging the mind and interacting socially is better than being bored and lonely. At best music is a tool of therapy, it is not therapy itself.The distinction is important, he then says, because
Attaching the word 'therapy' to the end of an activity is an attempt to give it a status it may not deserve - and that status is subsequently used to garner insurance coverage, hospital resources, consumer patronage, and research dollars. It is also used to constrain how we think about an intervention - implying that perhaps there is some specific mechanism as [sic] work, when none need exist.Novella, of course, doesn't mean to imply that 'music therapy' shouldn't be practiced, or that it "doesn't work". Rather, he is pointing out that the language we use affects how we think about things (one might add that others know this too, which is why we have such loaded terms as "war on terror", and "enhanced interrogation techniques"); and that when an activity is labeled a 'therapy', it communicates a meaning that might not be accurate, and can thus cause us to think inaccurately about that activity. Novella suggests that this is the case with 'music therapy'.
Indeed, a cheap motel I regularly patronize recently supplied me with "aromatherapy" dish-washing soap (I now wonder if the maids thought that the scent of lavender would encourage me to spend more time cleansing the dishes than I have in the past. If so, they must have reckoned without taking my skeptical outlook into account). The existence of such products suggests to me that, unless dish-doing has truly become a medical procedure, public perception of the word 'therapy' has been lamentably manipulated.
-the counter-counterpoints-All that said, how is one to decide what a better name would be for the discipline currently known as 'music therapy'? What should music therapists be called? And, anyways, what can be said about allegedly legitimate 'therapies' like physio-, and even talk therapy that can't be said about music therapy? Where should the line be drawn?
Should use of the word 'therapy' be regulated from the top down? or should individuals simply be made more aware of its frequent abuse? Would either of these methods even make a real difference?
Actually, I must admit to being baffled by these questions. What do YOU think?