If you’ve ever jammed out to your favorite dance beats before a big event, or power-rocked your way through a workout, you know music can affect your mood. Now, experts are saying music can even impact your mental and physical well-being. Practitioners of music therapy (MT) believe in the benefits of music so inherently, they’re using it to improve the quality of life for people with physical, behavioral and medical issues. Through its promotion of MT, the Songbirds Foundation gets to see its firsthand.
The Chattanooga, Tennessee-based Songbirds Foundation is dedicated to educational programming, music history preservation, and providing music resources to children for the purposes of education and treatment. Aware of MT’s many benefits, Reed Caldwell, the executive director of Songbirds, began working in tandem with Megan Taylor, a music therapist.
While Songbirds generally accommodates kids aged 12-17, the children who take advantage of music therapy through Songbirds tend to skew younger; Caldwell tells Parentology some of their clients are as young as two or three years old.
While a lot of the activities occur at their facility, their ‘Guitars for Kids’ initiative is an all-encompassing program that touches schools, hospitals and homes. “We teach teachers from all over Tennessee and then give them the equipment to deliver programs to their schools,” Caldwell explains. “Then, we augment that program by providing artists for schools, songwriting classes, etc. We supplement their existing curriculum with books and videos, and often we’ll integrate some music therapy.”
Caldwell says while the music therapy aspect is still in its infancy, he has plans to reinvigorate and boost MT so schools can recommend children for a Songbirds program on a case-by-case basis.
Caldwell is equally proud of the secondary part of the Songbirds Foundation — the partner program. “We partner directly with organizations across the region and we’ll send instructors out for group lessons with the kids. That’s where we really see the effects of music therapy.”
Instructors will adjust the Guitars for Kids program according to a child’s specific needs. “Megan (Taylor) might teach a simple chord structure to a child with limited mobility, or we’ll supply ¾ size guitars for smaller children who are lying in bed and can’t hold full-size guitars,” Caldwell says.
Caldwell cites a particularly moving scenario where Taylor treated a patient with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) who had been working with a physical therapist for over a year and still couldn’t turn her head to the left. “Megan got her to start using the guitar using her own line of vision,” Caldwell says. “ As she progressed, she could eventually turn her head to the left. In a short time, Megan and this child accomplished what had previously taken months to do.”
When asked about this particular client, Taylor is slightly embarrassed by the praise, but equally proud of her patient’s progress. “That girl’s PT [physical therapist] has come in many times to co-treat with me, so I can’t take all the credit,” Taylor tells Parentology. “She did really well. She just lights up when we come into the room.”
“There’s no prescribed one size fits all approach, we have to cater our approach to each case,” Caldwell reiterates. “We have kids with ASD [autism spectrum disorder] or Down Syndrome, and Megan can work with all of them at all ability levels. She’s great with terminal cancer patients — she goes in there and takes their mind off of being sick and redirects their energy in a way that’s positive.”
Taylor agrees that MT at the hospital is augmented. “My goals are different,” she says. “I focus on normalizing their environment – the hospital isn’t a fun place to be, so part of my job is to create good memories from their experiences at the hospital.” Taylor works with patients, their siblings and families to work through these complex experiences and process difficult feelings.
“Music therapy is evidence-based. We have degrees and certifications,” she says. “We don’t just pick up an instrument and play with it. There’s always a therapy element first and foremost. And we don’t just use guitars either. I bring bells, shakers, drums, etc. All there purely for musical therapy.”
In a study published by the Journal of Music Therapy, researchers identified several benefits to using MT to treat children and teens with ASD, including social interaction, attention, focus, communication, anxiety and spatial awareness. “I had little kids who couldn’t sit still for five minutes with processing disorders or some on the autism spectrum,” Taylor says.
She finds it incredibly gratifying when children who suffer from a lack of focus can sit for a 30-minute lesson without redirection. “One little girl wouldn’t even come into the room, so we started her therapy in the hall. We create adaptive lessons based on each child. You just have to, Each one is so different.”
The benefits of MT vary, as well. “We’re able to help them learn sign language to communicate, which is essential to prevent tantrums,” Taylor says. “Typically, we’ll set the lessons to music, which helps them socialize, look into each other’s eyes, put their things away, or just say ‘hi’ in ways that are socially appropriate.”
Caldwell can’t praise the power of music therapy — or Taylor’s efforts — enough. “Megan [Taylor] uses music to give kids self-confidence and makes them feel like they’re part of the world again,” he says. “Music brings people together — it always has.”