How Music Heals – The Work of a Music Therapist

Music can be celebratory, soothing, or uplifting. It helps us access and express emotion we may not be able to otherwise, and its impact is specific to each of us. Music Therapists, like Kati DePetrillo, are capable of using the power of music to help patients and families ease, even if just a little bit, life with chronic illness.

For as long as humanity has existed, there have been elements of music that moved right along with it. Each of us have a unique rhythm when walking, a melodic intonational pattern when speaking, and the sounds around us are comprised of their own tone and timbre. Musicality is everywhere, and we are continuously attuning to our environment utilizing our own musical awareness even if we don’t think of ourselves as “musical” beings.

The healing power of music is a rather complex theme to tackle in one blog, particularly as this must take into consideration cultural variables in addition to individual lived experiences when exploring what music heals and how it does so, yet musical engagement, receptive and active, can offer so much.  It can provide opportunities for emotional catharsis, silent reflection, meaningful connection, and empathetic understanding, to name a few.

In the context of Music Therapy, the approaches utilized with clients, patients and their families will look different depending on many variables.  As a Music Therapist within a pediatric medical setting, my work will look different too even within the same setting, as there are diverse clinical needs which will require varied approaches and interventions.  

Music is so beautiful in that it can modulate in the moment to be whatever a child, teenager or parent needs it to be.  It can be concrete, structured, and grounding for those who need stability during chaos, or something to control when they have little autonomy within their environment. On the other hand, it can be incredibly flexible and spontaneous, offering a space of freedom in an otherwise rigidly planned day.  Music can be ethereal, spiritual in nature, can inadvertently inspire transformational peak experiences.  These can be so profound at times that I have consulted Chaplaincy to collaborate and follow up in subsequent processing of these moments.  

Within the medical setting, Music Therapists often use elements of music to alleviate pain and anxiety, to promote relaxation and calm patients.  These musical experiences can access the wellness in the patient, the part not identified by their diagnosis or the hospitalization.  It is the essence of who this individual is and it’s truly amazing to get to know them and recognize that it’s the music that brought them into the room. 

Musical experiences do not always consist of instrument playing and singing.  Much of the work I do with parents and teenagers in the hospital is songwriting or listening to music and talking about its significance. Songwriting can be empowering and motivating, particularly for a teenager who is struggling with severe depression, or a NICU parent who is unable to hold their baby.  Inevitably the process starts out with these individuals believing that they cannot write their own song, yet by the end I’m sitting back and they are telling me how they want the guitar to sound, what words they would like to close with, as if we’re in a studio. It is their song.  It’s always their song.  For music to be healing, it needs to emanate primarily from the individual or group it aims to heal.  We as therapists are trained to introduce, to support, to anchor, to facilitate, to companion alongside, and to be present.  There are many other things we do of course yet at the same time it is important to recognize the healing power of music when the healing continues after our time with the family.  As it has been with us since the beginning, music will keep on growing and evolving alongside us as we move forward, with its significance on our health and wellbeing at front and center.

Kati is a board-certified music therapist with specialized certification in Neonatal Intensive Care practice. She studied music therapy and counseling at Drexel University in Philadelphia, completing her clinical training at the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital in New York City. 

After finishing graduate studies, Kati spent time abroad in England at Canterbury Christchurch University assisting with research in the area of singing and Parkinson’s. She then decided to return to medical music therapy practice while remaining actively involved in research initiatives as a clinician. Kati worked across multiple units at Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis and then on the adult psychiatric unit at George Washington University Hospital before joining A Place to Be’s medical music therapy program at Inova.

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