Music as medicine
TunesWork aims to heal patients through song
A particular scene from the documentary Alive Inside changed Mike Silcox and Ann Roach. In it, 92-year-old Henry Dryer, a nursing home patient who suffers from dementia—normally crouched over his wheelchair and barely responsive—is introduced to an iPod.
A nurse places the headphones over his ears and hits play. Dryer becomes wide-eyed and animated, muttering lyrics and dancing in his chair. He's interviewed afterward about his love for jazz singer Cab Calloway and sings “I'll Be Home For Christmas,” one of his favorite tunes.
“I probably went through a half-box of Kleenex,” Roach said.
Alive Inside, which won the Audience Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, inspired TunesWork, a nonprofit that advocates for using live and recorded music as a form of medicine.
The effects of music on the brain and body are complex, Roach said. Between the melody, rhythm and instrumentation, there's a lot to compute. Researchers have found that the areas of the brain associated with memory and auditory functions are connected, but not only that.
“Those who suffer from aphasia and can't speak can often sing,” Roach said. “The right kind of music can release opioids in the brain and [lower] pain and anxiety.” And for those who've had major surgery, she said, music can often stabilize their heart rate at the right tempo.
“Plus, you can't overdose on music,” she added.
Silcox, an insurance broker who specializes in memory care facilities, and Roach, a freelance musician who sings in the tribute band Steelin' Dan, met at a leadership conference in 2016.
“It's kind of like chocolate and peanut butter,” Silcox said of their partnership. “I know the people who own these nursing homes, and you sing, and we could put something together.”
Roach had been struggling to find work as a professional musician post-recession. “I really started to contemplate walking away from music,” she said. “I was so discouraged. I think that's what prompted me to go into this workshop.”
Now, Roach works full-time as a music therapist, curating personalized playlists, playing guitar and singing at patients' bedsides.
She said she sees the sorts of transformations from the documentary in her daily work. One patient was completely nonverbal and inattentive until hearing “Tuxedo Junction” by Glenn Miller.
“She looked straight into my eyes and had this look on her face, that look of surprise, and she held my gaze the entire song,” Roach said. “Even though she couldn't communicate verbally, it's like she was saying, ‘OK, I'm here. I've arrived. … I know exactly what's going on.'”
In another instance, she said, her friend's father, who suffered from dementia, was able to sustain a 20-minute conversation with his daughter after being triggered by his playlist.
“I was providing the soundtrack for them to reconnect,” she said.
Since its founding in 2016, TunesWork has raised more than $100,00 to get music therapy programs into California hospitals, hospices and memory care facilities. On Saturday, Sept. 7, it will hold the West Coast Jam, its annual benefit concert.
For Roach, it comes back to the first time she saw Alive Inside.
“I knew from that point on that if I was going to continue in the music business, that it was going to be for healing,” Roach said. “I really felt that if I had been given the gift of song, it could be used to help people.”