Music and Healing

by Dee Ann Miller

from author's home page:


Music mysteriously changes us. In recent years, scientists have begun discovering that it actually changes us in a physical way. There is much to be learned about this, but I think what we are learning is very much related to hope.

Back in the late 80's, on the inpatient unit where my primary assignment was that of a psychiatric nurse, one of my most thrilling therapeutic assignments allowed me to utilize my musical gifts. Whenever I could possibly get away from the routine, I would step back into a small room, to a piano, and begin simply playing. Soon the room would be filled with patients and sometimes a few staff members.

Music begins freeing up pathways that are often dormant or atrophied in our brains. Actually, new neurological pathways are often made. For example, people suffering from dementia or a deteriorating brain syndrome or schizophrenia show significant physical changes in the left lobe of the brain, due to their pathology. Yet these same people, through the gift of music, often compensate, becoming very creative because the right brain begins compensating for its counterpart, if given the opportunity!

I remember one woman who hadn't talked much in years. She would just come alive whenever she heard the music. Soon she'd be talking and would continue for a short while after the music stopped. Then, before long she would go back into her shell, appearing to be very content to disconnect from the world.

During those interactions with patients, I noticed how often the same piece of music would be received with a different set of emotions by some. For example, Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," a very calming piece to many, would be labeled "depressing" by others. If I shifted to a jazz piece, some patients would get up and begin dancing around energetically while others (usually the ones who interpreted the sonata as "depressing") would complain "oh, I've got to get out of here--that makes me so anxious!" Even rather sad music, by contrast, might be seen by some patients as peaceful. It was as if something deep inside connected to the music in unique ways.

I've noticed the same thing happens when we hear a troubling story, whether it is a story about abuse or an entirely unrelated social trend. Some will see rays of hope in the story, perhaps something that would have been exceptionally rare decades ago, or simply the fact that someone is talking to someone who is listening, whether it be a powerful survivor-to-survivor conversation or one between a survivor and a person in the powerful system. Others will become irate, focusing on all of the ways that things should be different.

Looking beyond myself, taking comfort in slow changes, accepting backlashes as a part of any paradigm shift, and having a vision of what can be accomplished over the next few lifetimes is a constant challenge for me. Yet it is what keeps me going in this work.

May you find hope as you search for the rays and the music that bring hope and peace to your heart.

Dee Ann Miller

Dee Ann Miller is the author of Enlarging Boston's Spotlight: A Call for Courage, Integrity, and Institutional Transformation (2017) How Little We Knew: Collusion and Confusion with Sexual Misconduct (1993) and The Truth about Malarkey (2000)