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Music Therapy?

Posted Oct 23 2008 11:39am

I had lunch with Dr. Pete and Dr. John this week. At the behest of John we had to have Italian food of course. The guy eats nothing but pasta. He probably chews pasta-flavored gum.

Near the end of the meal Pete tapped his fork against his glass like you'd see at a wedding. Were John and I supposed to kiss?

"I have two small announcements to make," Pete said.

He's been self-medicating his anxiety with drugs and alcohol, I know it. He's going to rehab. or A.A. Finally!

"You're coming out of the closet" John said.

"No," Pete said.

"You're a tranny?"


"You're adopted? Your wife is leaving you?? Your kid lost a leg? It must be something I can make fun of!"

"I wanted you both to know that I've begun group therapy for my Social Phobia."

This was huge. Pete had been on medication and in individual therapy for years, but neither was working. He had even seen an acupuncturist, life coach, herbalist and several psychics all to no avail. As strange as it may sound, group treatment is the method of choice for Social Phobia. It's just that Pete could never bring himself to sit in a room full of other adults without having a massive panic attack.

"So we can finally go to restaurants that have more than 4 people in them without you swallowing your own vomit at the table?" John asked.

"Yes. Well, hopefully. It's not that I choose to vomit, it's simply an involuntary contraction..."

"Pete, what's the second announcement?" I asked.

"I have started outside training to expand my practice to include Music Therapy."

"Music therapy? What the hell is that?" John said.

When Pete is confronted his anxiety begins to rise. He closed his eyes, paused, breathed deeply and spoke. "According to, there are two types of this therapy: receptive and active. In receptive music therapy, a person listens to music with a therapist, and the music can be used for relaxation and motivation and as a bridge to emotions, cognitive work, personal development, and self-reflection."

"Are you quoting verbatim from the site?" John asked.

"Yes and don't interrupt or you'll break my concentration!" Pete said as his eyes snapped open. Another deep breath, eyes closed. "In active music therapy, the patient and therapist play improvisational music together. The patient does not need to be a skilled musician. Gradually you draw out from the patient something musical and build a piece of music together that can be used as the basis for a discussion, or it can be the therapeutic agent in itself." Seemingly relieved he opened his eyes and smiled like one of those kids who spell "brachypterous" correctly on ESPN's National Spelling Bee. "It might be great for people who don't respond to traditional talk therapy."

Unfortunately only a small number of studies have been done. However there may be a growing body of research to support this type of work as an alternative treatment to depression. Pete is studying both approaches but prefers active music therapy. I've never seen him play an instrument, but the mental image of a socially phobic Pete holding a piccolo or perhaps a giant sousaphone in his Manhattan office brought a smile to my face.

"Well it sounds pretty fucking stupid to me," John said. "What are you gonna play with your patients Pete? Skin flute?"

"What's that?"

"Google it you idiot. Here, to celebrate your newfound combination of Carl Jung and Barry Manilow, I'll pick up the check."

I don't know what I think about this whole Music Therapy business. It is certainly unorthodox and my first reaction was pretty similar to John's. However, depression is a tricky animal and it's certainly not "one size fits all" when it comes to treatment. Anti-depressants work for some people but not all. The same can be said for Freudian analysis and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Even combining therapy and medicine doesn't always work. In other words, mental health professionals need to always be developing and studying treatments to come up with ways to help everyone.

So who are John and I (especially John) to say that it's a bad idea? I see a fair amount of teenagers who talk passionately about music, how much it means to them, how it speaks to them. I've met a few composers who talk about how their work is the most important aspect of their life. Maybe music can in fact be a therapeutic tool that can be measured and studied. Most psychologists are trained with the Scientist-Practitioner model, which teaches that research is meant to be a guide into how we practice. If the research continues to build on Music Therapy I may just support Dr. Pete as he and his clients discuss the merits of Neil Diamond together.

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