By Samuel Ford Coronado
When a bullet ripped through Gabrielle Giffords’ skull, the former Arizona Congresswoman lost the ability to speak. The injury, called aphasia, meant language pathways in her brain’s left hemisphere were damaged. Doctors treating her recommended she participate in an increasingly popular tool for treating mental and physical trauma: music therapy.
In interviews following Giffords’s recovery, the former Congresswoman could speak one- to two-word sentences, but she surprised many interviewers by singing full sections of songs by The Beatles or from the musical Annie. The brain uses different pathways to process singing and speaking, which makes possible the technique Giffords’ therapists would use for her treatment. Essentially, her therapists trained her to use melody and rhythm in conjunction with words so that her brain might create new pathways around damaged ones to make speech possible. Ten months after the shooting incident and her start in music therapy, the former Congresswoman had, for the second time in her life, learned how to talk.
Giffords’s story is remarkable, though only one example of a condition which might be treated with the help of music therapy. Others include dementia, Parkinson’s disease, insomnia, depression, autism, ADHD, and PTSD. In fact, music therapy began gaining status as a legitimate profession in the U.S. when, following World War I and II, musicians would train injured veterans to use music as a way of managing pain perception and PTSD.
But it’s not just specific medical conditions that music helps people to manage. General wellness is something music can have tremendous power over. Stress, blood pressure and mood can be impacted by performing, writing or listening to specific types of music. Some therapists even suggest that women giving birth should tap rhythms with their hands to feel more in control of the situation and their pain.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for helping individuals use music to cultivate their well-being, treat life-threatening conditions, or recover from trauma. But with an appropriate and considered prescription, there’s no doubt that music can benefit anyone.
Illustrations by Molly Ford Coronado.
This article was originally printed in August 2014 in Austere Awake.