rss search

Grand Magazine Wellness Feature


Sounds of healing

By Barbara Aggerholm


Grand Magazine story " Sounds of Healing"

Heidi Ahonen, director of the Manfred and Penny Conrad Institute for Music
Therapy Research at Wilfrid Laurier University, says experimenting with a
marimba-like instrument helps depressed people release their feelings.
Photography • Mathew McCarthy


THE POWER OF music to move us, inspire us, release us, soothe us, stimulate us, is never so clear as in the experiences related by music therapists.

  •  A dying man writes a love song for his wife.
  • A young adult draws a line showing the peaks and valleys of his troubled week which other teens put to music.
  • An aggression-prone girl describes banging on a drum as “letting out a big breath.”
  • A woman with Alzheimer’s disease and her husband have a rare conversation while she sits in a chair broadcasting low-frequency sound waves.
  • War-traumatized refugee women improvise on musical instruments to “speak the unspeakable.”
“Music sounds as our feelings feel,” says Heidi Ahonen, music therapy professor and director of the Manfred and Penny Conrad Institute for Music Therapy Research at Wilfrid Laurier University. “I think it was one of the composers who said: ‘When words end, music begins.” It’s an exciting time for music therapy, says Colin Andrew Lee, head of WLU’s music therapy program. Once perceived as a “fringe” therapy, more people are acknowledging the clinical use of music as therapy as a powerful way to help children and adults with special needs. At the same time, new Ontario regulations are coming that will protect clients and potentially boost the number of music therapy positions in hospitals and other health-care settings.

Ahonen and WLU’s Quincy Almeida were among a group of University of Toronto collaborators waiting to hear if they would receive a $1-million grant related to “music medicine” and aging. They want to explore the impact of low-frequency sound waves and other interventions on people with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other conditions.  Ahonen has already seen good results in a sound-wave study involving people with Parkinson’s disease that she conducted with Almeida, director of the Sun Life Financial Movement Disorders Research and Rehabilitation Centre.  Now, the question is how long the improvements in symptoms — reduced tremors and better balance among them — will last.

In the music therapy room at WLU, an electronic marimba-like instrument is helping depressed students see light at the end of the tunnel. Ahonen, an energetic, empathetic woman whose smile is as bright as the cheerful colours she wears, was a pioneer in music psychotherapy in Finland before she came to Canada. Now she’s blazing a trail here. Ahonen is working on a pilot study with a researcher in Finland. “Really depressed people, they are numb,” she says. “Feeling numb is a feeling.” Playing the $8,000 instrument helps her clients “release” their feelings. And because it’s a new instrument that can make hundreds of sounds, no one knows how to play it, which makes it less foreboding. “The whole idea is to express how you feel and then to discuss it.”

Ahonen supports the client by playing the piano or another instrument with him. “In psychotherapy, it’s like saying: ‘Uh, tell me more; that’s very interesting,’ ” Ahonen says. “That’s what I try to say with my instrument. . . . It helps the client clarify his feelings. “I think it allows them to see things in a different perspective,” she says. “When you are depressed, it’s darkness, a dark place without a future. This helps them to be playful and create a place in the future.”

In other research, Ahonen helps refugee women envision a future they had trouble seeing after experiencing trauma in their homelands. This winter, a group of Middle Eastern women worked with Ahonen and a master of music therapy student. In a group setting, the women express grief, anger, loss, pain when they improvise with a musical instrument or their voices, Ahonen says. “They have this place where they can
express the experience and be heard and get empathy,” she says. “Sometimes the improvisation might be about stress. It’s stressful to be in a new country.” She records the session and plays it back to the women, who later draw on paper. Music activates the limbic system in the
brain, which includes feelings and strong long-term memories, Ahonen says. Making art helps “externalize” the feelings.

Ahonen says she can see the women gain a sense of hope. “I really feel I’m making a difference in refugee women,” she says. “Music allows
them to express something they can’t speak. The feelings are not so easy to describe, especially if they’re horrible. “It’s almost like they’re in this dark pit and music provides the ladder.”

Ahonen’s two sound-wave therapy chairs — comfortable, recliner-type chairs developed in Finland — are producing exciting results among people with Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Inside the chair, six audio speakers broadcast low-frequency sound vibrations to body and mind within a range of 27 to 113 Hz (hertz) or cycles per second. A computer, which shows a picture of the body and its muscles on the screen, creates and controls the sound waves, changing the frequencies and focus as programmed. You can’t hear the sound waves because the frequency is so low, and the chair doesn’t move, although the person experiences sensations.

In one instance, a woman with Alzheimer’s disease sat in the chair for 30 minutes with her husband beside her. The chair was programmed for 40 Hz vibration. They were talking together, Ahonen says. “I noticed the husband is emotional and tears are running down his cheeks,” she says. Later, he thanked her. “He said that this is the first time in several years he had had a discussion with his wife where she remembered who he was and they were able to discuss their children and she knew the children’s names.”

In another case, a woman with dementia believed she was sitting on a train in wartime when she was experiencing 40 Hz of sound wave vibration in the chair. Ahonen also played music from her youth. In a couple of minutes, her eyes seemed to focus, and she began noticing things in the here and now, Ahonen says. “She said, ‘You have beautiful jewelry there.’ ” She saw the flowers in the room, and also commented about her “nutty” roommate. “It was like this waking up,” Ahonen says. “There’s something that is 40 Hz that provides a window to get the here and now back.” The window does close again, however. “The next day, she couldn’t remember me.”

Ahonen is excited about studying the effects of 40 Hz sound waves further. The new Music and Health Research Collaboratory at the University of Toronto means neurologists and other scientists would be part of the research. “Obviously, something is happening,” she says. “If we can improve quality of life, it would be huge.”

Read the complete Sounds of healing article By Barbara Aggerholm as a pdf