Thoughts and Observations on Music Therapy

by Stanley Jordan

Note: this article was put together rather quickly. I plan to add on to it in the near future. 

Thanks for checking it out! Stanley Jordan 1998/07/02



WESTERN CULTURE is catching on to something many other cultures have known for a long time--that music can have healing powers. The 1940s or '50s bore witness to the birth of a new “Westernized” form of musical healing, one that utilizes scientific research methods and trains its practitioners to high clinical standards. More and more, you can see music therapists in important places, such as hospitals, hospice centers, youth counseling centers, and correctional facilities. The work they are doing is making a big difference for their patients, and I'm very excited to tell you about it.

Since last year, I have been a member and spokesperson for the American Music Therapy AssociationI would like to see this field grow to its full potential. This brief article provides a glimse of the many areas that are touched by music therapy.


How I Got Involved in Music Therapy

The concept of “entertainment” falls far short of the real potential of music. Even the idea of “music as art” has its limits. When I think back to some of my most profound experiences, such as hearing for the first time the music of Serge Prokofiev, Jimi Hendrix or John McLaughlin, I know I was changed irreversibly. Good music touches us in depths we didn't even know we had. In this way it is tied to our growth and evolution, both emotionally and spiritually.

I've always wanted to do more than just making albums and playing gigs. I wanted a higher calling, higher than “commercial” or “artistic” success. What does all that really mean, after all? But if you can touch someone, really help their life, now that would be something special.

Once when I was a teenager, I had a date to jam with a girl, Allison, who played piano. I almost canceled, because I had come down with the flu, but I decided to go anyway.

We must have played at least 4 hours together, and at the end of the session, I felt nearly healed. It was very clear to me that the music had made a difference, although I had not yet heard of music therapy.

That memory always stuck with me. Then one day years later I met a music therapist named Donna Poland, who told me about the field and sent me some very impressive literature. The following year Kenwood Dennard, who was playing drums in my band, asked me if I knew anything about the healing powers of music and I shared the information I had gotten from Ms. Poland. It seemed everything was coming together.

In the last two years or so, I've had the opportunity to observe a number of music therapists during my travels. I make stops during my concert tours to contact local music therapists and observe what they do. I talk with some of their patients too. This has been very rewarding to be able to see first hand how this work is helping people.


A Few Music Therapists I've Observed

Dr. Johann Lowey -- Working with Children in a Hospital

Dr. Lowey specializes in treating children by practicing music therapy in the pediatric ward at Beth Israel Hospital in New York. She points out that pediatric pain is often under-treated. Possible explanations are:

  • Children are very sensitive to anesthetics, and doctors want to avoid administering overdoses or creating chemical addictions. So they are often conservative in the amount of anesthetic they give.
  • Also, children often experience a mixture of fear, pain and other powerful emotions in a hospital setting, so it is not always easy to tell what the child is really feeling.
  • A child who seems merely afraid could actually be in great physical pain as well. When the child is treated with insufficient anesthetic, the pain may become unbearable.

I observed Dr. Lowey doing music therapy for a boy who was getting a spinal tap. She played her guitar, she sang to him, she improvised lyrics that helped him to understand what was going on and to realize that he was in good hands and he would be okay. I think the music reassured him in ways that merely speaking might not have accomplished. An important point: rather than use the music to distract him, she used the music to ground him into the moment, and to empower him to be a participant.

They used no drugs in the procedure. The music was the anesthetic. The boy was so comfortable, that he fell asleep during the operation.

IMPORTANT POINTMusic therapy can also be good for the doctors and other health care workers. It helps them to manage their own stress, which can help them do a better job.


Barbara Dunn -- Helping People Cope with Difficult Illnesses

In Seattle I had a chance to visit Barbara Dunn at the Bailey Bushay House, which is a skilled nursing facility that specializes in treating people with life-challenging illnesses such as AIDS and cancer.

While there I saw her do a number of positive things with the patients, including helping them manage their pain and helping them deal with some of the issues their illnesses brought out.

This last point illustrates another aspect of music therapy. While working with one patient, she asked him what song he wanted to sing, and he said “The Greatest Love Of All.” There's something really powerful about that song--singing it takes takes you to greater and greater heights of inspiration and feelings of self-worth. You feel you can do the impossible, where you may have given up before. This is another way that music can heal. The subject matter of the lyrics can affect us emotionally and realign our thinking with our deeper purpose.

Your immune system is the part that decides what is you and what is not you. When functioning properly, it makes this distinction flawlessly, attacking only foreign invaders. When the process malfunctions, it may attack your own good tissues, resulting in auto-immune disorders such as leukemia, or it may fight substances that really aren't bad for you (this is called allergy), or it might not be fighting things that it should be fighting, such as cancer cells and HIV viruses. In deciding what is and isn't you, your immune system acts as the physiological expression of your self concept, or sense of identity.

Medical science is realizing more and more that the mind and body are linked, and that our thoughts can affect our bodies. It may be that strengthening and clarifying one's sense of self could help the immune system. No wonder the person with AIDS  wanted to sing “The Greatest Love of All.” From what I've seen, it appears that music can play a role in the treatment. There have already been a number of good studies showing positive immune responses to music.

Jazz might be a particularly good style to test because it places such a high value on individuality--being yourself, no matter how that looks or how others react, however...

IMPORTANT POINTWe must be careful to not make too many assumptions about the effects of specific musical styles, because so much depends on people's tastes and background. For this reason, music therapists have to be very flexible. There seems to be no limit to the number of songs and styles you can use as a music therapist.


Barbara Crowe -- New Research Horizons

Barbara Crowe is doing cutting-edge research at Arizona State University. I found her presentation one of the most fascinating at the 1998 AMTA conference. She is looking at insights from non-linear dynamics, chaos theory and subtle energy research and applying these ideas to music therapy. She views chaos as a natural healthy state rather than a disease state. For example, she points out that chaotic systems are more resilient--they return more quickly to equilibrium after being perturbed by an external force.

Over the years, medicine has evolved toward more and more subtle forms of energy.

At this moment in history, we are in the “chemical” age of medicine. Drugs are the primary treatment modality in the health-care industries.

More subtle than chemical energy is magnetic energy, and we are starting to see some work done in that area. People are treating thyroid imbalances and even healing damaged tissues with the help of magnets.

Even beyond that is “subtle energy,” which has also been called “chi,” or “prana.” It is very difficult to detect using today's technology, yet its power has been tapped by mystic healers and sages for thousands of years.

Healing touch practitioners generally say that what heals is more than just the touch. The intention of the healer is at least as important, and the physical touch is merely the vehicle for transmitting that intention.

Many people are looking for ways to use sound vibrations to heal physical parts such as internal organs. Barbara Crow is suggesting to go even beyond that and use the sound to, in effect, reprogram the person's overall energy field so that their healing can take place naturally and at all levels. To me this is the highest dream of holistic healing.

The most important thing I got out of chaos theory is the idea that the Universe is extremely sensitive. It's theoretically possible for the flap of a butterfly's wings to affect the weather on the other side of the planet. And we humans, being a refined expression of nature's eternal principles, are pretty sensitive too. For example, the human retina is capable of registering the impression of a single photon of light. Amazing!

So by utilizing our own natural sensitivity and harnessing the ability of sound vibrations to transmit the healing intentions of a practitioner Dr. Crow might just bring about her dream. Stay tuned.


I hope you enjoyed this brief look at music therapy.

The American Music Therapy Association can tell you where to find info about music therapy, and can hook you up with practitioners in your area. Also, they are up on all the latest research. You can get their journal, the Journal of Music Therapy to get more in-depth info.

As a spokesperson for the AMTA, I am trying to promote awareness of this promising new field. I am looking for ways to spread the word around, as well as to learn more myself.

Also, any music therapists coming to this site or other practitioners in sound healing are invited to send email. I can't promise I'll be able to answer every email message, but I would like to know what people are doing out there.

Send e-mail to:

Lasta modifo: Saturday, 11 April 2020, 5:54 AM