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Music Therapists Bring Healing Through Tunes and Beats

Bill Matney is an accomplished percussionist and professional music therapist who has performed in several Houston- and Austin-based bands, including the 90s hardcore group Refuse to Fall.
Bill Matney is an accomplished percussionist and professional music therapist who has performed in several Houston- and Austin-based bands, including the 90s hardcore group Refuse to Fall.
Photos courtesy of billmatney.com

Elton John once said, "Music has healing power; it has the ability to take people out of themselves for a few hours." This divertive nature forms the science behind the music therapy field, a burgeoning subsector of behavioral health care that is popping up in institutional settings -- from hospitals and prisons to schools and retirement communities.

Practicing music therapists can be found all over the city. Just last month, Texas Children's Hospital announced the opening of a music-therapy department, designed to treat babies in the neonatal intensive care and inpatient rehabilitation units.

Contemporary music therapy traces its origins back to the aftermath of World War II, when musicians began taking their craft into the medical setting to entertain and soothe wounded veterans. Patients who were exposed to the charitable performances showed such notable improvement that administrators took notice. From there, a unique form of therapy began to grow in both popularity and scope. Within the past several years, interest in that field has grown exponentially.

According to the American Music Therapy Association, there are more than 5,000 board-certified music therapists currently practicing in the U.S.

Bill Matney, who is pursuing his doctorate in music education and music therapy at the University of Kansas, has been in the field for 12 years. He first became interested in music therapy in college but, prior to that, was a performing musician in both Houston and Austin.

In the early '90s, Matney played drums for the local hardcore band Refuse to Fall and later pursued musical projects in styles ranging from ska and big-band to Japanese Taiko drumming and West African Djembe.

It is Matney's range of skills and accomplishments as a musician that enables him to practice as a therapist. Music therapists must be able to play several instruments to be eligible for licensure.

Matney explains that this capability qualifies the therapist to choose from a variety of mediums for applying treatment, and it is through this multi-dimensional application that music therapy works.

"The music therapist chooses the music, because within that choice, there exists a mechanism -- specific to the client's needs -- that facilitates change," Matney says. "The music therapist is intimately familiar with the music selection, and has chosen it with this mechanism in mind."

Music therapy has become a popular choice for the treatment of children and adults with autism and other developmental or learning disorders. Both music therapy and art therapy -- another recently expanding field -- are often incorporated into treatment plans for special needs children. For instance, autistic children -- who struggle with communication -- are encouraged to express themselves through artistic rather than verbal means.

Recent research has shown that patients with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia also respond well to musically based treatments geared towards memory recall and the facilitation of social interactions. Through a process of association, patients may be able to recover memories by listening to music that reminds them of a specific time or place.

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Matney has studied musical styles ranging from ska to West African Djembe.
Matney has studied musical styles ranging from ska to West African Djembe.

One of the most promising aspects of music therapy is its wide scope of applications. According to Matney--who has worked with patients in a variety of treatment settings, from addiction recovery to grief counseling -- the only requirement for benefiting from music therapy is a need that can be met through it.

"In many cases, the clients I worked with could not sit in a room together without arguments," Matney says. "If I am able to create an environment that allows them to interact appropriately in a unique way, then I've begun a process that is working."

The laundry-list of functions music can be used to promote include motor skills, pain and stress management, socialization, breath support and so on. But just how it does all of those things is a complex and intricate question that no one quite yet fully understands.

To that end, researchers are actively studying music's dynamic effect on the brain. In one of the simplest physiological demonstrations, neuroimaging techniques show that changes in tempo alter brainwaves -- rapid beats aid in concentration, while slowed tempos promote relaxation.

Music has long been used as a tool in meditation, as certain sounds can alter brainwaves and allow listeners to transition into a deeper state of consciousness. Contemporary music therapy works within the same parameters, but expands to a multitude of functions, goals and applications. According to Matney, it is the complexity of music's effect on the brain that makes it such an effective therapeutic platform.

"Because music therapy has the potential to cover a broad range of domains--physical, cognitive, emotional, behavioral, psychological, social--there are many potential specific benefits a client may receive through music therapy," Matney says. "The process can be individualized to meet needs in a specific context."

Anyone interested in finding music-therapy providers in Houston should visit the Music Therapy Center of Houston online.

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