The Human Mind in Music Therapy: Listening, Playing and Creating Tunes
Here is an inspiring essay completed for a school project by one of our youngest volunteer musicians, Zach Lee. A student at Marin School of the Arts at Novato High School, he recently performed for Bread & Roses at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank and was the winner of our “Oh Say, Can You Sing?” contest in 2019 for the San Francisco Giants. Zach plays many concerts for our institutional audiences and knows how to connect with people from all walks of life. We are so fortunate that wonderful young volunteer performers like Zach continue to be inspired by Bread & Roses to give back to our community. Enjoy!
-Dave Perron, Bread & Roses Executive Director
Photo of Zach Lee performing for Bread & Roses at a Giants game at AT&T Park, 2019. Photo by Brad Mangin
The Human Mind in Music Therapy: Listening, Playing and Creating Tunes
Article by Zach Lee, Bread & Roses Volunteer Musician -- April 5, 2021
On a late afternoon in December, I began singing, “I took my love and I took it down,” and I saw a middle-aged woman in a plaid sweater sitting on the side of the audience, raising her arms up high and swaying to the music with her eyes closed. She knew the song. She knew the melody and the words. She sang along with me, while the rest of the group began to chime in “...children get older, and I’m getting older too…” After my hour-long concert at the Center Point adult recovery facility in San Rafael, CA, she told me Landslide by Fleetwood Mac was a song her late mother often sang to her when she was little. Lots of happy childhood memories came to her mind whenever she heard this song performed live. It is moments like these that reassure me of the power of music therapy.
Music is a prominent part of my life. I started volunteering with the local arts nonprofit organization called Bread & Roses Presents when I was thirteen. Their mission is to provide healing through live music performances for isolated groups of people in diverse institutional settings in our community and across the San Francisco Bay Area. I perform at facilities including homes for seniors and the developmentally disabled, rehabilitation centers, homeless shelters and local food banks. Serving physically and mentally disabled individuals, economically disadvantaged groups as well as at-risk teens in my community through live music is a creatively profound way for me to provide these audiences with the restorative feeling of being lifted and supported. I am a firm believer in this mission and consequently, I am also able to internalize much therapeutic relief within myself.
Performing as a volunteer musician and connecting with people through music provides a unique way of engaging with different individuals. At the Center Point (adult recovery residential facility in San Rafael), for example, the small group of twenty people ranged from their mid-twenties to sixties, and each most likely had different musical tastes. I find it imperative to prepare a set-list consisting of songs from solo artists like Lionel Richie to Ed Sheeran and music groups like Fleetwood Mac to Maroon 5. That way, every person in the audience will hopefully have at least one song that they can personally connect to. I have learned that the more a song connects with a listener on a personal level, the more meaningful the show is for that individual.
Through sharing music at a variety of institutions, I am able to meet people from all walks of life. I get to hear their stories and connect with them in a relaxed manner, which, in return, has given me a tremendous sense of purpose. I find that playing original music helps ease me during a set because I am most comfortable performing tunes that are personal to me. I remember introducing an original song at Homeward Bound of Marin in San Rafael last year. As I was playing, a gentleman from the audience (around seventy-years of age) nodded through the rhythm and air-drummed along with my song. It was an amazing feeling for both of us. I later learned from him that he had been a touring drummer for Carlos Santana as well as many local musicians when he was younger and the thought of creating songs reminded him of how fun it was to be on tour playing and making music. He told me the energizing element that comes with the live form of music presentation is what makes this human connection so powerful and he commended me on the original song that I performed. I couldn't agree more with what he said about music and human connection. The psychological benefits of compatible types of music on the human brain through listening, playing and creating songs contribute to the process of therapeutic healing.
Music therapy is an established form to help individuals address physical,
emotional, cognitive and social needs. The University of Wisconsin (UW) offers in-depth studies at their family children’s hospital on the subject of healing through music. Scientific evidence found by UW suggests that music can have a profound effect on individuals – from helping to improve the recovery of motor and cognitive function in stroke patients, to reducing symptoms of depression in patients suffering from dementia and in helping patients undergoing surgery to experience less pain and heal faster. Music is therapeutic because it helps reduce heart rate, lower blood pressure and cortisol in the body (Mirgain). According to health psychologist Dr. Shilagh Mirgain, it is important to note that music is often in the background just about anywhere we go, for example, in a restaurant or a store. By implementing music intentionally, it can help relax individuals’ state of mind, ease stress and anxiety, and improve the overall wellbeing of an individual.
This is a reason why organizations like Bread and Roses serve the community by providing music as the medium for healing, especially since listening to music is a universally used form of music therapy when compared to playing or creating music. From a listener’s perspective, the anticipation of climax moments in music and the definite peak in a song creates a release of dopamine in the individual’s brain. Dopamine is the pleasure chemical of the mind and the main contributor to healing from the use of music therapy (Dolan). The melody and lyrics of songs that hold personal meaning are stored in the brain so when an individual recognizes the tune, the mind releases dopamine, which acts as a relaxant. In music therapy, people tend to connect with songs from what is called their formative years between the ages of twelve and twenty-two. Research has found that an individual’s brain develops the most during this range of his or her life and therefore, the music listened to throughout this period connects with them on a sentimental level (Does Music...).
Zach Lee at Bread & Roses Volunteer Celebration aka The Jam, 2019. Photo by Peter Merts.
Another significant factor that should be taken into account in music therapy is the link between music and brain functionality. Music listeners may experience brain disconnection due to a lack of joy from music. This means if someone is listening to music they do not enjoy, they are more likely to encounter a reduced functionality of brain connectivity. This is a condition called Specific Musical Anhedonia (Zatorre). It is important to keep this in mind during music therapy because certain genres and
styles may delay healing or not be as effective for specific people in need. Songs that succeed in healing vary for each person depending on what they grew up listening to and how old they are. Somebody who is eighty-years-old now would probably connect most with songs from the late 1950s to early-mid 1960s. This would include songs by Elvis, Sinatra and The Beatles since they were the artists who were most popular while the individual was in their formative ages.
Song choice in music therapy can signify the difference between a successful session and a detrimental one. Music therapy has been found to help with depression and anxiety, as well as speech impediments. It was recorded that in 2016, 6.7 percent of Americans face depression episodes each year, which is about 16.2 million adults (Koskie). Music has been used as an intervention for depression and anxiety, in that music from one’s childhood, as stated previously, has proven to trigger a form of antidote against negative emotions.
People who have been involved with life-altering injuries and have lost the ability to speak can be cured through music therapy. Speech, a skill held in the left hemisphere of the brain, can be healed through singing, a skill held in the right hemisphere of the brain. Individuals can sing their thoughts, while slowly taking away the melody in order to attain normal speech. Former U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords used this mechanism after she suffered a bullet to the brain and was not able to speak (Publishing, Harvard Health).
Although there are many positive attributes of music therapy on such conditions, there are also unfavorable outcomes. These resulting actions in most cases have sprung from songs that embody violent themes and lyrics. These effects vary from individual to individual, but still potentially give off a devastating vibe, rather than a beneficial feeling. Lily E. Hirsch, a musicologist and author of Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment, made a statement to CNN about the way music can increase the chances of violent acts as well as help prevent said chaotic and negative doings (Avramova). Violent songs influence audiences to view their own life with a veil of aggression that later on leads to pessimistic thoughts and actions. All of this back-traces to the initial purpose of music therapy in that without the right music to connect with an individual, the process of healing can drastically take a turn for the worse. There have been cases where heavy metal music has been linked as the source of psychotic crimes. One example happened in 2014 when a boy named Leroy H. Smith III became delusional due to being a dedicated supporter of the band Slayer, whose songs are made up of violent themes and promote Satanism. Leroy had dismembered his fifty-six-year-old father and defended himself in court saying a member of the band Slayer held a gun to his head. He had sought out medical assistance in order to carry on with the trial (BraveWords). There have been other cases that involved heinous crimes committed because of the devotion towards a band’s violent and disturbing musical content.
(l-r) Zach Lee and Dave Perron at The Giants Game at AT&T Park, 2019. Photo Courtesy of the Lee family.
In an interview with Dave Perron, the executive director of Bread & Roses Presents and a great mentor of mine, he spoke of his somewhat unorthodox approach to his role at the helm of this local nonprofit organization in Marin County. Perron was a former elementary school teacher who went on to become an executive for the Oakland A’s while also serving as a board member for Bread & Roses Presents (Lee and Perron Part 1 7:20). He met the founder of the nonprofit, the late Mimi Fariña, in the 1980s and later his former brother-in-law encouraged him to apply for the open position at Bread & Roses Presents (Lee and Perron Part 1 7:57). This year, Perron is in his seventh year as the executive director of Bread & Roses Presents.
In the interview, Perron signified a strong correlation between athletes and
singers (Lee and Perron Part 1 9:30). Both groups are entertainers in their own fashions and they must create their own special way of connecting with their audiences. For singers, it is through song choices for a specified venue and for athletes, it is their gameplay and how they rally up their supporters.
Perron and I also talked about the role that music plays in society today and the power it instills on audiences stretching all around the world. Perron told a story about a lady who lived in the Marin Post Acute Care in Terra Linda, San Rafael, CA where Bread & Roses Presents was hosting a show in 2019 (Lee and Perron Part 2 0:25). He remembered that the woman, who was wheelchair-bound, would only be sitting still and rarely move. She had shown signs of depression and a lack of motivation. However, Perron recalls the woman tapping her feet and her hands along with the performer midway through a performance of Mack the Knife a song by Bobby Darin (Lee and Perron Part 2 0:55). This was a delightful sight to Perron since she had been emotionless and seemed to be distant for the majority of the beginning portion. Later on, he found out from the lady’s son that the song that was being played was his dad’s and her late husband’s favorite song. The song brought back fond memories of her husband that she had not recalled in years. The ability to reminisce on past events in one’s life helps elderly individuals experiencing memory loss in a very significant way because it makes them feel like they have a “sense of competence and confidence through using a skill they still have” (Gibson), which has been proven by many studies on the elderly population. Perron said when he returned to the facility a month later to reconnect, the woman had passed, but the reality that the song was able to carry that amount of impact for a single person meant a lot to him (Lee and Perron Part 1 2:04).
Perron believes that the preservation of music therapy in Marin County onwards will rest on the shoulders of “people who love the arts - people who make a commitment to either be in the audience and pay for a ticket or people who will under-write a Bread & Roses Presents concert and pay for whoever our performers are” (Lee and Perron Part 1 13:20). The tireless efforts of Bread & Roses Presents, under the direction of Dave Perron, will continue to focus on the use of music as a healing proponent for people in our community.
Not only is listening to music a beneficial factor for mental health, memory recovery and cognitive abilities, playing an instrument has also proven to improve an individual’s wellbeing. The University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Medicine News published that, “While learning to play an instrument as a child provides life-long benefits to the brain, taking music lessons in your 60s – or older – can boost your brain’s health as well, helping to decrease loss of memory and cognitive function” (Sapega). Whether you are a beginner or a virtuoso, the simple stimulation that comes with music playing is enough to heighten your brain functionality as seen in the report by Penn Medicine News. This was also explored in the Neuroscape project by Dr. Adam Gazzaley from the University of California, San Francisco and Mickey Hart, the drummer of the Grateful Dead. They studied how drum-playing creates positive emotional waves in the mind and how that correlates with everyday activities. It directly links back to the enjoyment of music from the formative years of one’s life. Playing songs that hold sentimental meaning to an individual shows a highly increased brain activity and heightened forward-looking emotions (Gazzaley and Hart).
In addition, creating music through songwriting and composing trains our brain’s
plasticity or in other words, how adaptive our mind is to outside stimuli. “Music-making places unique demands on the nervous system and leads to a strong coupling of perception and action mediated by sensory, motor and multimodal integrative regions distributed throughout the brain”(Wan and Schlaug). At the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), neuroscientists Catherine Wan and Gottfried Schlaug reported that various studies conducted at the NCBI showed that music-making on top of music playing offers a special skill for the brain that is rarely found in other mind-intensive activities (Wan and Schlaug). Music-making engages the songwriter to put in personal perspective and meaning behind their lyrics and melody that allows for a deeper healing of the mind, while music playing, in general, draws a connection between the player and songs they enjoy which hold a different meaning to them in the form of memories and events that correlate with those songs.
Although I play mostly songs that the audience at the institutions are familiar with, I
occasionally add an original tune into my setlist as a way to share my personal thoughts with my listeners. I remember talking to a lady who was in her late eighties after the show at The Tamalpais Marin Senior Home in Greenbrae, California. She had been a music teacher in her twenties for over a decade and said I reminded her of a student she had before. She went on to ask if there was a way to listen to more of my original songs, so I shared with her the songs I had online as it would be easily accessible for her. I saw joy in her eyes as a staff member, in general, at the facility told her that he would help her get onto the site whenever she wanted to. Short moments like these remind me of the additional positive effects that come with creating music and showcasing that to a healing audience.3 June
Zach Lee with his dad, Kevin (left) at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, 2021. Photo by Lisa Starbird.
My personal experience with Bread & Roses Presents and being an advocate for music therapy has allowed me to witness the healing process my audience experiences. As I continue my musical journey with this nonprofit organization, I consistently recognize the profound effect that music has on the people around me. I am truly grateful for the role that music plays in my life and how it has helped me through the endeavors that come with my academic and social life.
I appreciate the mission Bread & Roses Presents has set for itself and the amazing work that volunteer musicians and professional music therapists are doing to help those in need across our community. It is abundantly clear to me how necessary it is to educate the significance of music therapy and to make this a resource that can be widely accessible to all.
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