How Music Can Heal Our Brain and Heart: Kathleen Howland (Transcript)

Kathleen M Howland at TEDxBerkleeValencia

Full text of speech language and music therapist Kathleen Howland’s talk “How Music Can Heal Our Brain and Heart” at TEDxBerkleeValencia conference.


Kathleen Howland – Music therapist

Music therapy has ancient roots. It was Pythagoras who was first known to use music prescriptively for people’s emotional and physical maladies. Those ancient intuitions, which certainly would have been going on long before the time of the Greeks, had become the predecessors and the foundation for the modern practice of music therapy.

This practice has now been conjoined with neuroscience to help advance music-based interventions for diseases and disorders of a wide variety.

Have you ever stopped to wonder when we begin to respond to music?

It actually begins in the womb. Human responsiveness to music begins in the womb. In the last trimester of fetal life, baby is able to hear external sound. That sound comes through for speech and for music, and they’re able to detect the musical elements of both. So much so that they will respond differently to music and stories that they’ve heard previously than ones that are unfamiliar to them in novel.

This implies a memory capacity for the musical elements of speech and for music. In the first years of life, those musical distinctions will allow the child to learn speech and language.

For children who are born tone deaf, they are at a disadvantage in learning speech and language. And it actually will impair their reading abilities, down the road.

Currently in Boston, there are studies going on that identify the ability of three-year olds to tell the difference between (made two different sounds with her voice)

And if those children think those sound the same, then they are tagged as potential dyslexics. This is a disorder that won’t be diagnosed for another three to five years. It is music that’s assessing and will provide interventions to support that child. So perhaps they won’t have to deal with the challenges and the setbacks of dyslexia.

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EEGs, at birth, a brain imaging technology, show that babies can detect the beat in music. Newborns can detect the beat in music.

If I asked my students, my wonderful music students, ‘what is the beat? Define it and describe it.’ I get these big blank stares. They’re rendered speechless. They don’t know how to describe it. And they end up saying something like, we just know it. Which is true.

And now science informs us, because children are brought into this world with that capacity to detect the beat. When the next one will fall. And if you’ve seen YouTube videos of babies moving to music at about six months old and older, it is so much fun to see that it’s joyous. And yet that’s the first time they can actually organize their bodies to demonstrate what their brains have already known.

So you wonder why the next logical question is why are we like that? And we’d have to look back in our evolutionary past for evidence that music was used to facilitate people accomplishing great tasks together; things that they couldn’t have done as individuals.

So sea shanties are a body of music that rhythmically helped organize, motivate and sustain the efforts of sailors going around the world.


What shall we do with a drunken sailor? What shall we do with a drunken sailor?

And by doing that, they were able to lift heavy lines that had anchors at the end of them. to hoist massive sails, to load and unload cargo and to row all at the same time. Because if they hadn’t been able to accomplish this work together with the power of rhythmic music, there would have been chaos. Work would have come to a halt. And the work was treachery.

How would you maintain and sustain your effort across time?

And it was music. And perhaps that’s why we’re born this way.

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This innate capacity to entrain to the beat, to move to the beat, does not seem to change across the lifespan. We’re born with it and we die with it. Even if you have a movement disorder that you acquire, like Parkinson’s disease or a stroke.

Research shows that we as music therapists can use this organizing element of rhythm to help facilitate people walking better with a stroke. Just by adding music, they walk like you and I do for the most part.

We can also help sustain the functional mobility of people with Parkinson’s disease along chronic disease process.

And what we’re looking at here are brain-based treatments for brain-based disorders. We’re not looking at the paralyzed leg. We’re not looking at the symptom. We’re addressing the cause. We’re changing the underlying neural mechanisms, the place that has the stroke that can no longer communicate to the body. And I find that really exciting. The promise of doing this.

As a speech therapist, I’ve used music with great success across a variety of disorders. For example, children with autism, I’ve noticed across my years respond better to some cues than to spoken ones. And science informs why this may be so.

There’s a structure called the arcuate fasciculus in the brain. In the brains of non-verbal young children with autism, it’s thicker on the right hemisphere than it is on the left. And why that matters is the right hemisphere is predominant for melody. The left hemisphere is predominant for speech.

So maybe this is the entry point into their world. The way to call them into ours; to use music to facilitate a sense of identity of sound, discrimination amongst sounds, and the ability to understand that sounds have meaning and have them participate.

It essentially jumpstarts their speech and language development. With people who have had strokes, we can use music as a therapeutic application to facilitate repairs of their speech and language network.

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Once again, the arcuate fasciculus may have a role here, for it is larger in professional singers than it is in non-singers. And this indicates our use of singing based protocols to help repair the networks, the compensatory networks. So that people can optimally recover. So that they can share their thoughts, feelings, opinions and needs with others.

Now, music therapists paired with neurologists are leveraging the power of music with a great deal of success across many disciplines. And this type of medicine comes with his own sugar, its own spoonful of sugar, so to speak, because music is inviting. It’s fun. It’s non-invasive. And it has great meeting, it’s familiar and dear to us all.

On a nearly daily basis, we all use music to find comfort, to find relaxation and to find motivation. As music therapists, we use those connections with people when they’re in pain, when they’re afraid, when they’re facing the great challenges of their life, when they have a child with a disability, or when they become disabled themselves.

We can use music for comfort when people have been admitted into hospice care. And this is Kevin. For Kevin, comfort meant creating the music of his own funeral and a love song for his wife. It gave him so much meaning. For others, music induces a relaxation response that really helps them in various trials.

I certainly was in a serenity bubble today of Schubert and Finzi and Elgar, as I prepared to deliver my best here today; to access the relaxation response, so I wouldn’t be buckled by a stress.

We can do that for people preparing for surgeries, because a beating, thumping, stressed heart is difficult to overcome with the anesthesia. You need a lot more. Perhaps by coming into that experience, in the relaxation response through the gift of music, people require less anesthesia, less pain medication and have a more satisfying experience.

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