Can Music Heal?

By Ittai Shapira
Op-Ed Contributor

For most of my life, I have been fortunate to perform as guest soloist with some of the world’s leading orchestras- starting from my days as a student at the Juilliard School. The significance of music was obvious in my mind. Or so I thought, until I was made aware it might be taken away from me

On a freezing night, January 14th, 2005, I was attacked by seven men in New York City.  While the dramatic sounding event might seem significant, I consider my reaction over time to be far more important.  I did not suffer any of the typical symptoms I was told to anticipate and accept: nightmares, panic attacks, etc. I did, however, suffer zapping headaches that lasted for 18 months, and was aware of holes in my memory leading to the head injury.

I began to hear persistent melodies within my mind. Oddly, it was these melodies that helped me remember the sequence of events that led to the injury. The music also helped me overcome the headaches altogether. When I decided to write down the melodies, I did not know that in time, these sounds would become the basis of my first composition for violin and orchestra.

A number of years later, I suffered a hand injury. The injury was not severe enough to prevent me from playing concerts, but my doctor ordered me to reduce my rigorous practice schedule.

This change caused me rethink my relationship to music, and sparked my curiosity to explore how music impacts our lives on many different levels. First, I wanted to know how music affects us neurologically – what happens inside the brain.  I reached out and interviewed some of today’s most respected neuroscientists – Dr. Joseph LeDoux, Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel, Dr. Simon Baron Cohen, and Dr. John Chong.

Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords inspiring story of recovery gives insight into how music helps us to heal neurologically. She regained her ability to speak through singing therapy – not speech therapy.  Singing stimulates multiple regions of the brain. Scans show that it is singing that helps the formation of new circuits in the brain, between the auditory cortex, the motor cortex, the cerebral cortex, and the endocrine system.

Other examples are in the sounds we hear every day. Our heart races when we hear the sound of an ambulance. It is the sound of the siren – not the sight of the moving vehicle that has the real visceral impact. If we don’t want to see something, we can easily just close our eyes. It is much more difficult to completely shut our ears.  Additionally, think of your favorite movie scene. I wager that it is the music that makes it stand out, explicitly or implicitly.

Also, music plays a central role in cultural identity. National anthems can fill our hearts with pride, or recoil in disdain, if it represents the enemy. Music also has been used for torture. Guantanamo Bay and the surrender of Noriega come to mind.

I also realized that in order for us to benefit from the vast healing potential music can have on our lives, we must practice. Much like a diet, workout routine, or learning to play the violin, healing through music must be cherished and practiced – every day.

Since I had seen how music helped me rebuild my individual memory, I wondered if it could help rebuild a collective memory. Could we heal a culture through music?

This is why I approached anthropologist Natasha Zaretsky, Ph.D and philosopher Laureen Park, Ph.D, to form “Sound Potential”. Our projects aim to connect groups that are geographically and culturally diverse – through the common thread of music.

Each of the Sound Potential projects focuses on a different form of healing – both for the individual and for the community. The idea is to provide these materials to music therapists, academics, community leaders, and educators as a tool for improvement within the needs of their respective clients and populations.

We collaborated with music therapists at the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function (co-founded by Dr. Oliver Sacks). They were able to show significant improvement in patient’s brains while listening to music using an EEG.

Most of the research and use of music is reactive – meaning music that was written for the concert stage or recording studio. We wanted to create music that would allow people to actively participate. Our idea at Sound Potential is to compose and provide music for concerts and recordings that also includes elements specifically composed for healing, with guided listening and participation.

As performer and composer, my duty to the audience is to present carefully practiced and highly personalized music to my audience. As I develop Music for Healing, I intend to do exactly the same.  Only this time, we all rehearse and perform together, not just for the initial performance, but for many years to come.

My colleagues often ask me, how do I know that this will work?  Even with input from leading experts in multiple fields, an overwhelming amount of hospitals and organizations showing active interest, we won’t know until we try.  But what I do know is that an integrated, dynamic noninvasive approach based makes the process almost as important as the result.  It is, after all, the basis of any learning and healing process.

Ittai Shapira,  is a violinist, composer, and curator. He has has performed as soloist with some of the world’s most prestigious orchestras, has recorded over 20 CD’s and composed 8 Concertos.  Shapira is the Artistic Consultant for the Cornel Weill Music and Medicine Program, co-founder of the Ilona Feher Foundation.  He received an award from the Victor Herbert Foundation, in support of long term innovative projects

For more information: www.soundpotential.org and www.ittaishapira.com.