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Multiple Sclerosis Centers of Excellence

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Music Therapy in Multiple Sclerosis

Jenny Asparro -- Northfield, MN

“No wheelchair can interrupt the journeys of the mind,” said cellist Jacqueline du Pré. During her struggle to maintain a brilliant career despite MS, her musical memory was unimpaired by illness. She could easily recall the feeling of playing and used this to her advantage when teaching other aspiring cellists to achieve a high quality musical sound. Music brought her out of depression and helped her stay active and engaged. A person does not need to be a virtuoso cellist to recognize and experience the benefits from the therapeutic effects of music. There are a variety of musical approaches that can assist people living with MS to have a better quality of life.

History of Music Therapy

The idea that music has a healing influence which can affect health and behavior has been recognized for centuries. The profession of music therapy formally began after World Wars I and II, when the therapeutic effects of music on physical and emotional traumas from the wars were recognized. From early studies in the 1800s, where psychologists used music to alter dreams for therapy, to currently using modern technology and equipment, the benefits of music therapy has become the focus of many organizations and discussion in journals worldwide.

Improving Movement and Coordination

The planning and order of movements are essential to everyday activity. Programs in which people learn to match repetitive motor actions (like hand and foot exercises) with a computer-generated rhythmic beat can improve coordination, concentration, and physical endurance. Through these exercises, people experienced more even gait. Rhythm stimulates the impulse to move and helps people sidestep the coordination processes they can’t think through otherwise. It is almost impossible to fully lose the ability to process music because, unlike speech, it involves so many areas of the brain.

Improving Memory

Memory changes are common in people with MS. Even though some people might find it difficult to recall particular pieces of information or to remember names, words, events etc., they can still learn to carry out new physical tasks. Studies show that the physical task of learning to play an instrument can improve cognition and memory. If long-term memories seem lost, some studies show listening to music might actually help those memories to return. This is because hearing music is associated with the areas of the brain where long-term memories are kept. As a result, listening to music from past special events or from “the good old times” in one’s life can stimulate feelings and associations with those past events and in part improve access to long-term memories. Familiar music can also improve attention and memory recognition.

Reducing Depression and Anxiety

Some of the hardest issues to cope with for people with MS are emotional ups and downs like feelings of depression and anxiety. Expressing emotions by playing or listening to music can help some people cope with their past or present feelings and also help some deal with their fears. If music therapy is done in a group, it can help establish a closer connection with others, especially since music activates areas of the brain that process social signals, language, and emotions.

Stress Management

Music can relax the mind and body and can even trigger physical reflexes such as digestion, bladder control, and movement of the limbs. Mood may be enhanced by a particularly calming piece of music, and as a result, some people experience less discomfort or pain.

Improved Verbal Communication

Music can also help people improve their verbal communication skills. Singing words that were otherwise difficult to recite has shown to aid in communication and verbal expression. For example, one might not be able to recite the words to “Happy Birthday,” let alone speak fluently, but as soon as the words are set to music, the words can come naturally. Singing can also help with the breath support, pronunciation, and timing needed for speech.

Music therapy can help people with MS. It can help with depression, anxiety, memory, and other emotional issues. It also provides the physical benefits that come from staying active and moving. Healing through music, whether therapist-led or self-directed, can be an effective, low-risk, and low-cost endeavor. The cellist Jacqueline du Pré was able to maintain a meaningful career despite having MS. Everyone can learn from her example and from others who have used music to improve their quality of life and overall well-being.