Treatment with a tempo: A look at the world of music therapy


Via Kuba Bożanowski | Wikimedia Commons

Music therapy is the use of music, such as singing, songwriting and playing instruments, to improve the lives of others physically, mentally and socially.

By Mary Rose O’Donnell, Senior Staff Writer

Finals week is stressful, this goes without saying. There are many ways students can de-stress and battle anxiety such as exercise and meditation, but one commonly overlooked method to handle heightened levels of stress is music therapy. Music therapy is the use of music, such as singing, songwriting and playing instruments, to improve the lives of others physically, mentally and socially. From banging on a drum to curating the perfect Spotify playlist, two music therapists and one music therapy student shared their best de-stressing tips, as well as their experiences helping people through music intervention.

Heather DiCicco // Music Therapist, BRiTE Program

Tucked away in an office building on North Craig Street is the BRiTE Wellness Center, run by Pitt’s department of neurology. BRiTE aims to help older adults maintain cognitive health as they age, with activities in specialities such as movement, creativity, music and cognitive training.

Heather DiCicco has been a music therapist at BRiTE for the past two years. She is an instructor for the marimba classes offered at the center, which adults with all levels of music experience can take.

“[The marimba classes] are great for their orientation and socialization. It’s a physical instrument that gets people up and moving around as they’re playing,” she said.

DiCicco started the music expression classes at BRiTE, which are classes designed to create a space for participants to cope through music. The classes are less structured than the marimba classes and offer members the chance to play various instruments as well as discuss song lyrics and what they mean to each person.

DiCicco became interested in music therapy when she worked at a nursing home as a teenager. Every so often, she would bring in her guitar and play songs to the residents.

“When I played familiar songs to people who weren’t really connecting with others, I found [the music] to be a bridge that closed that gap. It was really great to see how relationships could form through music,” she said.

DiCicco studied music therapy at Slippery Rock University and subsequently became a board certified music therapist. She interned in a psychiatric hospital and has worked with people with special needs, individuals in nursing homes and people struggling with emotional trauma. Outside of BRiTE, she teaches guitar and piano at Sunburst School of Music.

DiCicco recommends thoughtfully creating a playlist in order de-stress. She recommends starting with upbeat and uptempo songs, then progressing into more mellow songs before ending with slower tempo songs that can relax you.

“As you’re choosing a slower tempo or laid-back song, beware of going to more sad music. You’re trying to relieve tension without making your mood completely depressed,” she said.

DiCicco also advises to choose music you enjoy.

“Pick songs you enjoy and have positive feelings toward. If you find yourself thinking of a negative time in your life, don’t pick that song,” she said. “You don’t want to trade one set of stress — school stress — for another set of stress.”

Michelle Muth // Music Therapist, M3 Music Therapy

Michelle Muth did not start her professional life as a music therapist. After receiving a degree in music performance from Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, she worked in public relations and marketing for a information technology startup outside of Boston while directing a choral group on the side.

As the years went on, her day job overshadowed her musical endeavours.

But Muth and her husband moved to Pennsylvania in 2006, where she had the opportunity to go back to school, further her education and set her marketing career aside.

“At that point, I was a director of marketing. I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore,” she said. “I wanted to go back to my first love, which was music.”

Muth attended Slippery Rock University and received a degree in music education and music therapy. After teaching choral music for several years, she decided music therapy was the path for her.

Muth became a board certified music therapist in 2010 and created her business, M3 Music Therapy, in 2011. With her car full of musical instruments, Muth has brought music therapy to private homes, group homes and schools throughout the greater Pittsburgh area. She works with a variety of individuals, including senior citizens, child survivors of domestic abuse and people with special needs.

“It is never the same thing. That’s what I love about [being a music therapist]. It’s never dull. One client may really like working with drums and percussion and is working on taking turns,” Muth said. “I may have another person who really loves to sing, so I’ll bring my karaoke machine to a session.”

Not all of Muth’s treatment plans involve playing instruments. When working with child survivors of domestic abuse, she analyzes song lyrics to help clients cope with their emotions.

“Oftentimes if you’ve gone through a major trauma, it’s easier to talk about it from a third-person perspective. Looking at song lyrics about somebody else, but the story is really depicting your life, is often easier than talking about what happened,” Muth said.

Muth is currently working on bringing M3 Music Therapy into the workplace by creating programs that use music to facilitate team building and promote employee wellness. She also currently leads a women’s drum circle.

In order to de-stress during finals week, Muth recommends the Stopwatch Tap Technique. This technique was developed by Jim Donovan, a Pitt alum and assistant professor at Saint Francis University. It goes as follows:

Step 1: Close your eyes and imagine the sound of a stopwatch. Do four taps per second (imagine the beginning of the show 60 Minutes).

Step 2: Begin to lightly tap your hands or fingers on your legs, alternating the hand back-and-forth four taps per second. If you say the word “Mississippi,” that will guide you.

Step 3: Breath slowly. Try to keep tapping for at least two minutes or as long as it feels good to do so.

“Your brain craves pattern and consistency. When you’re stressed or have anxiety, you can’t focus,” Muth said. “The tapping creates a pattern and engages the right and left side of your brain. If you do this for two-to-four minutes, those anxious thoughts will calm themselves and you will be able to focus.”

Amanda Gilmore // Music Therapy Major, Duquesne University

Amanda Gilmore was introduced to music therapy when she was a junior at Moon Area High School in Moon Township, a suburb of Pittsburgh near the airport. She was unsure whether she wanted to pursue music or psychology in college, but things changed when she met a music therapist from UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. When Gilmore heard the details of a music therapy career, she realized this is what she wanted to pursue.

“[Music therapy] combines all the things that I am passionate about: helping people, working directly with people, music and psychology. The more I researched and learned about the major, the more I realized that music therapy was made for me,” she said.

After graduating from Moon, Gilmore enrolled at Duquesne University as a music therapy major. Over the past four years she has taken a variety of classes, including music theory, guitar, piano, voice lessons and music therapy in relation to physical, developmental and mental health.

Duquesne music therapy majors must also participate in an ensemble, such as a band or a choir, during all four years of their study, as well as complete 30 hours per semester of field work beginning their sophomore year.

One of Gilmore’s field work experiences was with Wesley Family Services, a nonprofit behavioral health care center, in its Bridgeville location.

While completing field work at Wesley, she mainly worked with autistic children. Music therapy sessions varied based on the needs of each client, but many followed a basic structure that includes an introductory “hello” song, then working on a specific skill or goal that the music therapist or team of therapists has established for the client using music intervention.

“If a client is working on verbal skills or communication, then we would do a fill-in-the-blank song. We would sing a little bit, pause, then give the client the opportunity to contribute to the song,” she said. “If we’re working on social skills, such as sharing, eye contact and appropriate boundaries with a group of two or three students, we would practice sharing, passing and taking turns playing instruments.”

Sessions normally conclude with a “cool down” or “goodbye” song. Gilmore said this is especially important for autistic children.

“When working with kids with autism, we usually make it so that we say goodbye to each client and that they say goodbye to each other in order to encourage standards of social functioning,” she said.

She will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in music therapy after completing a six-month internship in Fairfax County, Virginia, in a public high school’s music therapy program. Once becoming board certified, Gilmore hopes to continue working with children and teens in the education setting.

“I would really like to move back to Pittsburgh and pitch a music therapy program to my alma mater and bring it back to Moon, which is where I got my start and where I was inspired to pursue music,” Gilmore said.