Music Heals: A Visit to Evanston's Institute for Therapy through the Arts

Artwork by Elizabeth Vogt

Artwork by Elizabeth Vogt

By Siobhan Esposito

For many people, music is a go-to stress reliever. Stressed about a final exam? Listen to music. Anxious about a term paper? Listen to music. It’s no secret that music holds healing powers that can reach a wide variety of people, but to some, it provides a means of therapy.

Music therapy helps individuals advance their physical, emotional, cognitive and social functioning through the utilization of musical elements. Amanda Ziemba has been a music therapist for 6 years and currently works at the Institute for Therapy through the Arts in Evanston. Her clients range from adults with dementia to children with autism.

“With music therapy, music is being used as the therapeutic mechanism for change,” Ziemba says. An initial baseline assessment of the client determines what goals should be set. This assessment is part of the treatment planning process and these goals can be both mental as well as physical. The goals then determine how the music therapy will be tailored to that specific client.

Photo Courtesy of Institute for Therapy through the Arts

Photo Courtesy of Institute for Therapy through the Arts

Why might a client decide to go through music therapy as opposed to a more “conventional” therapy service? According to Ziemba, it’s due to the fact that music is “incredibly motivating.” Although more conventional versions of therapy, like physical therapy of psychotherapy, are more well known, they often ask clients to repeat certain tasks which can make the experience of therapy itself dull and monotonous.

In music therapy, however, music is utilized as motivation for tasks that may seem tedious without the assistance of music. Think about simply tapping your foot along to a song you like. Three minutes seem to go by faster when you’re tapping along and listening to a song you enjoy as opposed to sitting in silence for 3 minutes.

Music therapy sessions are very individualized. The baseline assessment indicates the structure of the session. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, music therapy uses four major interventions to assist patients with mental illnesses: lyric analysis, improvisational music playing, active music listening and songwriting. For someone trying to improve fine motor skills, the sessions consist of using music to motivate actions like picking up small objects.

Photo Courtesy of Institute for Therapy through the Arts

Photo Courtesy of Institute for Therapy through the Arts

Music therapy, according to Ziemba, is not necessarily a backup plan for when other types of therapy don’t work. Instead, it’s just another therapeutic option that is used to meet a client’s needs. Most clients’ families know that they are personally motivated by and interested in music and that’s typically how the client is drawn to the path of music therapy.

Optimistically, we can hope that music therapy’s role in healing grows in the future. “Music therapy is reimbursable under Medicare and is increasingly reimbursable through private insurance,” Ziemba says. Music therapy is also considered a related

service on IEPs for children with developmental disabilities in schools. Therefore, if music therapy is deemed to help a student, school districts are obligated to get therapists. Not all insurances cover music therapy right now, but licensure is currently expanding to make these services more available and affordable to all.

If you’re looking to heal mentally, physically, or emotionally, music therapy is a viable option for people who both enjoy music and are also willing to work with a music therapist to achieve their goals. Motivation is key in this type of therapy. If someone finds that their goals can be more easily accomplished with the help of music, then this type of therapy may be the most efficient option for healing.