Music that does you good

More than just beats and melodies, music acts on our central nervous system, cheers us up and saddens us. It excites us. Music therapy is a complementary treatment that stimulates the brain, offering physical and psychological support, as neurologist Oliver Sacks demonstrated in 1966. 

Wearing his favourite T-shirt, 6-year-old Aitor sits waiting on the bed. He is distracted by the images on the tablet as he passes the time, never far from his red-and-black Spiderman hat. Until some gentle knocks can be heard on the door. Whereupon Pau appears, entering the room discreetly with the two things that always accompany him: his guitar and his smile. 

The music therapist and the patient immediately smile at one another, neither one dropping his gaze. Pau’s eyes are gleaming, and Aitor’s teeth can be glimpsed as he smiles rather timidly. The connection and bond of protection created is magical, enchanting. A ukulele, eight bells and even a folding piano pass through Aitor’s hands during the time of the session, without a doubt the best moment of the day for him. 

When Aitor arrived in the paediatric oncology department of the Son Espases university hospital in Palma de Mallorca he barely spoke – he was a frightened child who did not want to be separated from his mother. Music therapy is helping him to loosen up and sing. To feel safer and more comfortable with himself.

“Music therapy isn’t about a musician who sings songs. I don’t just come here to sing. It’s much more than that,” explains Pau Català, a music therapist with the Association of Parents of Children with Cancer of the Balearic Islands (Asociación de Padres de Niños con Cáncer de Baleares - ASPANOB). Qualified in piano and guitar studies, Pau also has a master’s degree and a post-graduate qualification in this discipline, and has been taking his suitcase full of instruments from room to room for four years now. 

It was 1966 when neurologist Oliver Sacks first studied the effect music had on patients with Parkinson’s disease. As a result of that success, the creation of music therapy units was immediately boosted in hospitals in the United States. 

In Mallorca music therapy has undergone significant growth over recent years. Hospitals like Son Espases, Sant Joan de Déu or the Joan March hospital offer this type of therapy. ASPANOB was the first group to financially support the project, which several NGOs have joined. 

Like Aitor, Noa, aged 14, wakes up with Pau’s music. The buzz of the ventilators, the echo of the infusion pumps, the whistle of the oxygen, the rattle of the carts, the beeping of the pulse oximeter and the murmur of the adult voices of doctors and nurses on their rounds – all of the typical sounds that a child suffering from cancer usually hears in hospital are forgotten for a short while. 

Some days, when Pau goes into Noa’s room, her eyes are closed, and she is still half asleep. Little by little, she gently wakes up to Recuérdame, her favourite song from Coco - the children’s film. He sings it to her very softly and watches as Noa gradually opens her eyes and, pulling her hands out from under the blanket, asks Pau for the maracas. Her mother then seizes the moment to sit her up, and between the two of them they manage to activate her. “Music has that sedating and activating capacity,” adds Pau.  

Taking his guitar from its case, Pau manages to get Noa to accept a swap of a toy for the musical instrument he proposes. “And which one are we going to sing now?,” he asks her. Rhythm, tone, lyrics, melody and harmony are some of the tools Pau uses to move forward with the goals he has set himself with each patient. “It’s difficult to explain in words. Music therapy is my life,” he says, clearly moved.

The musical experience is an option offered to patients who want it. But if one day Aitor, for example, feels tired and isn’t in the mood for a music therapy session, Pau respects this and does not go into his room. “What I’m telling him is that he has the power to decide. He can’t decide about what they give him in a chemo session, but he can make a decision on this.” he explains. 

The day Aitor sings a little louder and lets himself go, and is moved from his usual rigidity, or the day he manages to stimulate Noa to put her hands on the strings of the guitar, achieving a whole movement, are the days when Pau goes home happy at a “job well done.” 

Thanks to the study of music therapy and its relationship with medicine today, we now know that listening to music activates the visual, auditory and motor cortices. Taking us a little closer to the incredible orchestra that inhabits our brain. 

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