Tim Ringgold, board certified music therapist, is the owner and director of Sonic Divinity Music Therapy Services, based in Orange County, California. Since 2007, Ringgold and Sonic Divinity have been serving multiple populations through research-based music therapy programs.
For this Power of Sound story, POW Audio sat down with Ringgold to talk about music therapy, what is it, how it’s used and who it’s for.
POW Audio: For those who aren’t familiar with it, or who might be mistaken, what is music therapy?
Tim Ringgold: People are often mistaken about what music therapy is because music is inherently therapeutic and because people inherently use music therapeutically for their own purposes to help them through the day. But there’s a time when the clinical use of music as a treatment tool in healthcare or educational settings becomes appropriate to address some sort of nonmusical goal or a challenge a person might be facing in their life.
A good analogy is physical therapy, where a physical therapist uses exercise in a very, very specific way to address a treatment goal. You don’t need a physical therapist to exercise, but sometimes you need a physical therapist. In music therapy, you don’t need a therapist to enjoy music. But sometimes you’re struggling with something at some point in the lifespan, and the targeted use of music can help with that challenge. What makes it specific is that the goal isn’t about music – it’s that the music is actually applied by a therapist. Just like a physical therapist applies exercise, a music therapist applies music.
POW: In what situations, and specifically when, is music therapy an appropriate application?
Tim: It’s useful across the lifespan. Music therapists work with pre-term infants, young children, early-childhood development, school-age kids, adults, all the way through senior citizens struggling with Alzheimer’s, dementia and hospice. So we can really point music at any area of the lifespan and improve specific outcomes.
I’ll give you a couple of big examples: children with autism are a large population that’s well served by music therapy, where there’s good research on the effectiveness of music therapy. Using music therapy with children or people with autism allows them to increase their attention span and their emotional and social connections and appropriate social behaviors. Because those are life skills they struggle with, or barriers to them living a normal life, being able to integrate in school, and through the targeted use of music and music therapy, they can increase those abilities very, very specifically. It’s a wonderful thing for them, because they can better manage emotional regulation and social behavior in a school setting, and it improves academic behavior.
POW: What sort of effects can be expected from music therapy? Are they acute or are they cumulative over time?
Tim: It’s hard to talk about music therapy because it’s so broad and it’s applied to so many patient populations to treat so many different goals. And the effects sometimes can be instant and short term, and sometimes they can be cumulative and long term. It’s kind of a non-answer, but it does depend on the population.
I’ve worked with patients in the hospital who were there undergoing cancer treatment, and they deal with a lot of pain, a lot of anxiety and nausea as a part of the treatment and the disease. In a single session, we can decrease their perception of those through music – in 15 to 30 minutes of one-on-one music therapy. We can lower a person’s blood pressure and heart rate in the ICU, even if they’re in a coma. Patients who are recovering from stroke, they’re working on walking again. When rhythm is introduced, the amount of time it takes them to regain their ability to walk decreases by over half. So there’s some very fascinating specific, powerful and instant effects that music can have.
POW: Can music therapy be administered by anyone? Can it be self-administered, even if that person isn’t a music therapist?
Tim: That’s a great question, and it’s kind of the great argument – because the tool itself is so powerful and it’s already used by everybody. If you’ve made a playlist or a mixtape before, you’ve prescribed yourself music. I lecture on this, I speak at conferences all over the country, two times a month on average, and in my talks I ask people, “What have you prescribed yourself music for?” A playlist they made – for exercise, for road trips, for work, for relaxation, for heartbreak, for grief. Intuitively, humans lean on music because they know it produces a powerful effect for them, emotionally and spiritually.
What most of us don’t understand is the physiological effects music has on the brain and body, and that’s where a board certified music therapist can really make a difference. Music is inherently therapeutic, but there are times when its administration by a music therapist makes the experience much more powerful. And there are times when the incorrect use of music can produce a negative effect that we don’t want. It’s really important for people to understand: music creates an arousal state or a relaxed state. Do you know which one you’re trying to create? Do you know which music will do that for you or for someone else? Because music is so personal, like flavor. You might like peppers. You might love peppers. So you’ll say, “I’ve got this great pepper.” And I’ll say, “Keep that pepper 10 feet away from me, because I can’t stand peppers.” Music is very much the same way.
If you subject someone to music that you like and they don’t, you will cause a stress response in their nervous system. We’ve all experienced it – like fighting over the radio dial back in the day. There is an intuitive relationship that all humans have with music. It’s in every culture. All moms sing to their babies. So we know that that already exists. And we can also leverage that relationship in a much more targeted, powerful and safe way when done by someone who’s been trained to understand what takes place when music cognition occurs.
POW: There’s a climactic scene in the Disney film Coco that resonates with a lot of movie-goers and, for many, may be their only exposure to a version of music therapy. Truth, or just a good story?
Tim: That’s every music therapist’s happiest moment, watching that scene – I’m practically tearing up right now thinking about it. Because I’ve had hundreds of those moments! Music stimulates the brain in a way that no other stimulus in nature does. The brain lights up during music cognition in a way that’s totally unique. Parts of the brain come online and work together and fire together during the musical stimulus, and that’s the only time it happens. I’ve had many, many Alzheimer patients “come to,” if you will, and start telling detailed stories.
For one gentleman I worked with, a World War II vet, I played the “Khe Sanh” song, for Army members – now this was a gentleman who didn’t know what day it was, where he was. But when I played that song, he shared a detailed story about how the armed forces flew him and his dad, during the middle of World War II, to an island in the Mediterranean. One of them was serving in Italy and one was serving in Africa, so they gave the father and son a weekend R&R together. He described all the details of it crystal clear, out of nowhere. I’ve had times when I walked into a facility – I’m only there when the music’s happening, so I don’t know what the residents look like before or after. One time, I forgot my sweater, so I went back an hour after our session was over. I didn’t even recognize the place because everyone was catatonic. But while we were there and the music was playing, they were singing, they were laughing, they were telling rude jokes, they were shaking shakers, they were drumming on drums, the senior ladies were flirting with me – no joke. They were alive!
Those moments happen to music therapists every day. And they don’t just happen with patients with dementia – they happen with patients who have intellectual and developmental disorders, patients with autism, where they just seemingly come out of their shell because of how music fires up the brain. It’s just unique in nature and unique in medicine.