Healing with music: A conversation with Dr.Baishali Mukherjee

5 December 2023
Chaithra MJ Written by Chaithra MJ
Chaithra MJ

Chaithra MJ

Chaithra is a freelance content writer with a love for existentialism. She is passionate about...

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“One distinctive feature of music therapy is that music as a creative performing art form also encourages expressivity, creativity, flexibility, imagination, socialization, and spirituality. The experience one can have through therapeutic listening, singing, or by playing musical instruments is holistic and integrative; it connects mind and body. Music has the power to naturally induce positive emotions, hence activating the parasympathetic nervous system through a psycho-neuro-endocrine mechanism that involves music-making activities.”

Join us in an exclusive conversation as we delve into the fascinating realm of music therapy with renowned psychologist, Dr Baishali Mukherjee. Baishali is a pioneer with over a decade of experience in educating, practicing and conducting research in both psychology and music therapy. She has merged the study of the mind with the artistic beauty of music to help children facing autism and other developmental issues. 

We had an insightful conversation with Baishali about how music has the potential to open fresh pathways in mental health. Here are some excerpts.

For many of our readers, the concept of integrating music into therapy might be new. Can you explain how this integration works? In what ways does music therapy differ from other types of therapies? 

First of all, it is important to understand that there is a difference between integrating music into other therapeutic interventions and so-called music therapy. There are many ways of using music in the healthcare context.

The approach could be alternative, complementary, or integrative, depending on the needs. In most cases, it requires professional training in music therapy, musical skills, and competencies, as music has different functions and roles to play with clients in clinical settings. The integration depends on the kind of therapy, the theoretical foundation underlying the therapy process and its techniques, the client’s needs and assessment areas, and the overall socio-cultural context. 

For example, in a medical context, music is often used or integrated by the staff of the hospital, including doctors, nurses or other allied health care professionals. Commonly, recorded music is played based on the musical preferences of patients to uplift their mood, boost self confidence and motivation, reduce anxiety and pain related to the treatment procedure, etc.

However, the integration of music in a medical setting is a specialized one, usually subjected to the clinical training of the therapist because the purpose is more specific, directed, and interventional. It differs from how music therapy is employed in a rehabilitation or special needs setup; where the purpose is to establish a connection or an engagement with the clients or to facilitate developmental functions by using music as a means of communication. 

There can also be other therapeutic objectives of using music, like making clients comfortable in a therapeutic setting, helping them to release emotions or impulses through music, revealing causative factors of a behavioral symptom or an emotional disturbance, inducing relaxation, and so on. In music therapy, different levels of clinical responsibilities are involved with clients, starting from primary, specific, intense, auxiliary, augmentative, comprehensive, and so on. 

In what ways does music therapy differ from other types of therapies? 

Each and every therapy is different and unique in its own way. In music therapy, music is the medium of therapeutic communication, leading to an engagement between the client and therapist.

In the music therapy context the client-therapist-music trio the base for all therapeutic outcomes depending on the context, including improvement of a clinical condition or symptom, health and wellbeing, enhancing or facilitating developmental skills, empowering life, etc. The application can be preventive, restorative, rehabilitative, or palliative, depending on the needs and context of each and every client- music is tailored.

Also, the music used in music therapy is to give an experience that is therapeutic. The therapist assesses and then intervenes by creating or improvising music tailored to the needs of clients. A clinically trained music therapist knows how to create an experience to meet the needs of his or her clients in an intervention session. 

What inspired you to pursue a career in music therapy? 

I was raised in a family where my parents always encouraged me to give equal focus to music and dance along with academics. I believe my training in both Hindustani classical music and Indian classical dance forms has played a significant role in my life since childhood. It was not just training or learning music but discovering myself, finding my own identity, and expressing who I really am.

This feeling of connectedness with music was the sole motivation for coming to this field. Then, of course, my higher studies and research in psychology helped to make a transition in my academic life. From there, I got the true inspiration to take up music therapy, which was quite new in India at that point in time.

I found a path where science and aesthetics can be merged for human benefit to help someone uplift their mind, body, and soul. 

Can you describe the process of music therapy assessment? 

Assessment is the first step within the systematic process of music therapy intervention. Through assessment, the initial clinical information about the client is gathered first. Then, depending on the context, the assessment becomes an ongoing process that helps to plan further intervention. 

The interesting fact about music therapy assessment is that it is done using music and its different elements and then observing and recording both musical and non-musical responses of clients to the given music. The clients’ responses and participation in music with the music therapist give an indication of the bio-psycho-social-spiritual state of the client as well as the different areas of need. There are standardized music therapy assessment protocols and tools available for use by trained and licensed professionals. 

Healing with music: A conversation with Dr.Baishali Mukherjee

With the variety of music genres available, how do you select the right one for each session or individual? 

The selection of a genre depends on the client’s preference for music. Musical training of a person, family’s musical background, cultural factors including language, religious beliefs, and spiritual practices—all of them contribute to this decision. 

How does cultural background influence the choice of music in therapy sessions? 

Music being a socio-cultural phenomenon, we always connect ourselves with a form of music based on our individual experiences and associations. In a musical experience, biopsychosociocultural-spiritual factors are all interconnected. The preference for music arises from this interconnection. 

In music therapy, musical profiling and cultural profiling of clients are integral parts of the assessment process, which provides the foundation for planning the intervention. For example, using folk music in a session for an individual who prefers to listen only to classical music will not be helpful. 

Are there specific conditions for which music therapy is particularly effective? 

There is a broad-spectrum application of music therapy worldwide. In some clinical conditions or areas, the application of music therapy is considered an evidence-based practice, while other areas are still in a nascent stage and require further practice and research. For example, for autism spectrum disorder, music therapy is considered an evidence-based practice. 

Are there any specific challenges you face in music therapy that differ from other types of therapy? 

The logistics are the challenge. A music therapy room is supposed to be soundproof, spacious, and equipped with different types of therapy-friendly musical instruments. The technical requirements would include a camera and other devices for both audio and video recordings to cover the entire setup. Sometimes a high-quality audio system is a requirement if recorded music is to be played instead of live creation, etc. 

In India, we are still far from meeting these needs to implement music therapy in clinical, rehabilitative, and special needs settings. So sometimes it is a challenge to conduct music therapy in a clinical environment. 

Can you share a success story or a particularly impactful experience you’ve had with a client? 

There are many such examples and success stories, especially with children with disabilities and emotional-behavioral issues. But there’s one which is very close to my heart.

I used to work in the Child Development Centre (CDC) of a hospital, where referrals used to come from both the pediatric and childhood psychiatry departments. I once received a case of a 7-year-old girl with self-injurious behaviors and symptoms of anxiety and depression. She was receiving psychiatric treatment along with other allied healthcare interventions for children at that time. The medical team referred her for music therapy to help reveal the cause of anxiety related to her self-injury and an overall depressed state, which couldn’t be sorted out through other interventions. 

My therapeutic approach for her concentrated on music and play. I facilitated nonverbal spontaneous expressions because she always preferred to be silent in the sessions. The context of music therapy, which was flexible, empathic, and conducive to the need and condition, helped the girl to release emotions, relate to her own feelings, feel secure, and perceive the environment as a predictable one where there were no demands or threats. Gradually, in the therapeutic process, the child was able to form a secure attachment with me (the therapist) through the medium of music and music-based fun and play activities. 

Finally, it led to the revelation that the physical abuse the girl used to witness at home happening with her mother silently left her with fear, uncertainty, and, most importantly, sorrow for her mother. She had no voice to protest or to console her mother, so she developed self-injurious behavior as a coping strategy to deal with her overwhelming emotions. The family completely hid the issue, which was actually the root cause of her problem. The information also helped the medical team re-visit the problem and revise the treatment plans. 

And for those who may not go for therapy, how can we integrate music into our everyday well-being? To cope? 

I can suggest a few ways in which music can be integrated with our daily lives. It doesn’t require any musicianship or training in music. We are inherently capable of appreciating and enjoying music. So, for this integration in daily life, you just need to realize your musicality or your inherent potentiality and interest to connect yourself with music; it helps to calm, relax, release, focus, plan, and also to have a meaningful engagement of your own. 

There are simple ways to develop some musical habits to restore a healthy mind and body and maintain wellbeing. Listen to preferred genres of music at a consistent and comfortable time of the day. Focused listening helps to uplift mood, invoke positive thoughts and memories, regulate emotion, strengthen social relationships, and so on. It is also important to go beyond your comfort zone through music. 

Healing with music: A conversation with Dr.Baishali Mukherjee

Listening to unknown artists can nurture flexibility, openness to experience, adaptability to change, etc., which are important life skills.

Humming, singing, playing instruments, writing lyrics to songs, composing melodies, dancing, making creative movements with sound, etc. are active ways to get engaged in music.

These musical activities encompass many skills and bio-psycho-social functioning, including gross and fine motor skills, cognitive skills like problem-solving skills, communicative skills like speech, linguistic expressions, and so on. 

Apart from that, regular involvement with music-based rituals like chanting, music and meditation, music-mediated chakra activation, and community music activities boosts social and spiritual wellbeing in individuals along with a healthy lifestyle.

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