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Music Therapy as a Treatment for Substance Abuse with At-Risk Children and Adolescents: Part I

By: Deborah Bradway, MT-BC
Category: Wellness
Population Served: Drug & Alcohol Rehab


Music exists in society in various different forms, relative to each culture of origin. Samba: South America, Raga: India, Blues: North America, and the list goes on. It is important to think about how these musical forms originated. Music is not only a universal language, it is the result of a natural bodily response for humans to adjust within an environment. Since the birth of man, music has been used for many things, but primarily to purge.

Why do the countries with extreme poverty and suppression produce music that the rest of the world adopts as the leading forms of healing music? Those who created these forms did so for survival and cultural preservation, to rise above and heal from devastation. "Happy" music can lift depression or promote health, such as in the beautiful chants from Salvador Bahia or the dancing rhythms from Africa. "Mourning" music can move depression through the body, providing a physical exit through tears, such as the Blues music from Mississippi or Hasidic songs from Europe during Hitler's reign.

As Jerrold Levinson stated in Music, Art, and Metaphysics (Cornell University Press, 1990), "The grief-response to music is that it allows one to bleed off in a controlled manner a certain amount of harmful emotion with which one is afflicted."

Music provides us with a safe container within which one can slowly and safely come to terms with built up emotion that natural body defenses have hidden in the unconscious mind for the preservation of the organism. It also provides humans with the metaphysical space for cathartic experiences to occur, which can bring forth a transcendent awareness for the individual(s) participating.

I can remember the moment I decided to be a musician. I was in high school, playing last chair viola in an excellent college orchestra. We were rehearsing the second movement of Dvorak's Cello Concerto when it hit me; an interval I was playing in harmony with the english horn gave me chills and I was lost in space and time. I thought, "This is sadness and beauty sharing the same space in one moment, this is the nature of our earth, our universe, and our entire being." This not only came as a thought, but was integrated, into my body and spirit on a very deep level. As I came back to the orchestra, to the room I was in, and the page of music I was supposed to be reading, I had tears streaming down my face. My conductor, who also served as my mentor, looked over at me and smiled at me as he could see I had lost my place. Somehow there was pleasure in his smile, he understood the power of music. He understood I had truly found my place -- I was no longer lost.

Music is the first language we encounter as infants; in the mother's womb, we listen to the heart beat, when we come out, we tone until we adjust to the new environment (crying). Internalizing and understanding concepts such as love and communication are first done so through sound and touch. At the start of life, a baby distinguishes all sounds as musical and energetic, loaded with information that encompasses the realm of emotion. Later, a child is able to interpret and understand verbal language, and uses vocal intonations, toning and sign language before the vocal ability becomes intelligible. Current science has revealed that the human body records all information on a cellular level, imprinting the organism with information for survival. One might inquire then, what messages are stored in a poverty stricken, neglected or abused infant?

The Psychology of At-Risk Children, Substance Use & Medical Effects of Music:

Youth who are at-risk have spent much of their time surviving, not living. They rarely have experiences that enable them to feel, let alone feel alive. Vulnerable young children who pack weapons and use drugs on a regular basis encounter the "fight or flight" adrenalin response frequently. The body of a child such as this develops thick defenses against the outside world, which includes the neighborhood they come home to each day.

Many experts talk about how anger is used to reach these often hostile young people. If we are to back up a step in psychology, we find in actuality, that anger comes from fear. It is fear that they are responding to in the initial stages of substance use. Having to carry a knife to walk the 'terf' of a neighborhood and fulfill the expectations of gang members as a sibling is a terrifying experience for a child who is forced to participate as soon as he/she becomes conversational with those in the community. A young person with virtually no support system, uses substances as a defense mechanism to shut down the pain that seems unbearable. The amygdala, and area of the brain recognized as a major emotional command center that allows us to experience pleasure, can be accessed through cigarettes and other substances.

According to Norman Weinberger in his excerpt, "The Musical Hormone" from MuSICA Research Notes (Fall 1997): "When the amygdala is particularly active, it is believed emotions are experienced... In short, when we experience something very important, even traumatic, a lot of adrenaline is released which "instructs" the amygdala to help other parts of the brain store stronger memories... We must realize that hormones secreted in the body and effecting bodily processes, such as the cardiovascular, muscular and immune systems, also effects the brain... Music itself actually changes the amount of release of our stress hormones."

When pondering the many causes for addiction, remember that a dose of pleasure reduces our perception of pain (Goleman, Gurin, Mind Body Medicine, 1993). The body can experience a sense of calm or momentary relief, even amid chaos when using substances that alter the conscious state. It is important to note that the body can also do this when it is engaged in musical activity.

Weinberger explains in "The Neurobiology of Musical Learning and Memory" from MuSICA Research Notes (Fall, 1997), different studies showed music greatly reduced the levels and duration of cortisol responses to stress.

Dr. Barry Bittman of the Mind Body Wellness Center in Meadville, Pennsylvania, in collaboration with other doctors at Linda Loma University, California, have recently found that: "Group drumming resulted in increased DHEA:cortisol ratios, increased NK cell activity and increased LAK cell activity."

What does that mean for those of us who are not medically inclined? The body's immune system increases on many levels.

In Weinberger's excerpt, "The Neurobiology of Musical Learning and Memory" from MuSICA Reasearch Notes (Fall 1997) he states about music and memory: "When the brain learns the same information using different types of memory systems, it seems to represent that information not merely according to its ultimate useful content per se but rather according to the instructional strategy, and thus the type of memory system employed... Active music-making regimen was definitely better at producing stronger long term memory than was passive learning."

Medical effects are equally as important as our relationship to music socially. What about music and Ritual? All humans have a need for structure and ritual. The cigarette becomes the element that marks time and creates structure through ritual, in what would otherwise feel like unstructured time. Children who have had a lack of structure in their lives seem to crave it more than others, who may have the ego strength to improvise on a moment to moment basis through unstructured time (like after school, or 'hang out' time). The ego strength of this population is usually so fragile that it is impossible to cope with the stress caused by poverty, a diminished sense of self-worth, lack of structure and ritual in the home environment, minimal successful educational experiences (such as positive regard and good grades), lack of parental support, and negative behaviors reinforced within the community and at home. Drugs of all types are not only used as a replacement for ritual, but also to fill the emotional void that seems overwhelming.

Contact Deborah Bradway

Proceed to Part II

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