When Music Becomes Your Medicine

Playing an instrument provides physical and emotional benefits

By Bart Astor
Originally Posted On July 31, 2014

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Bart Astor, an expert in life transitions and elder care, is the author of the book AARP Roadmap for the Rest of Your Life: Smart Choices About Money, Health, Work, Lifestyle and Pursuing Your Dreams and Baby Boomer’s Guide to Caring for Aging Parents. His website is BartAstor.com and he can be reached at Bart@BartAstor.com.

Photo courtesy KXAN TV, Austin, Texas
If music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, then playing music hath charms to heal the savage breast, or, more appropriately, the damaged lungs.
 
This is what Tom Zoe of Austin, Texas believes. So he helped create a program at Seton Medical Center in Austin, where he volunteers, to teach sufferers of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other chronic lung diseases to play the harmonica as part of their physical therapy.
 
The blowing and drawing required to play the harmonica are excellent exercises that help patients with COPD. The exercise also improves muscle tone in lips, cheeks and tongue.

Zoe emphasizes that no musical knowledge is necessary, just a willingness to use the harmonica as a therapeutic tool. In classes, he teaches students the basics of making sound from the harmonica and how to play simple songs. They use a method that shows which note to play and whether to draw in or blow out.
 
Zoe says the patients enjoy the classes much more than just doing breathing exercises, because they all get to play songs together and feel like musicians, not patients.

And whether they’re playing fairly easy songs like You Are My Sunshine or blowing a blues harp, harmonica players exercise their lungs effectively.
 
A Multi-Faceted Therapy

Music therapy has been around for a long time — Hippocrates was known to have played music for his mental patients as early as 400 B.C. — but only recently became a recognized medical discipline with board certification.

It is a helpful tool for therapists in treating mental health disease, developmental and learning disabilities, dementia, and acute and chronic pain.
 
Music therapy also provides therapists with important clues to help assess emotional and physical health — we’ve witnessed how up-tempo and dance music sparks toe-tapping, even in individuals with late-stage dementia. And music from the distant past, often when they were young adults in their early 20s, will elicit a response and singing along from patients who are otherwise non-communicative.
 
But so-called “harmonica therapy,” or the playing of an instrument that produces music, is a tool that therapists have just recently endorsed to make physical and occupational therapy more interesting and more effective.
 
While musicians have long gone to physical therapists seeking help because playing their instrument had caused pain or dysfunction, harmonica therapy turns the whole thing around. As Zoe observed, “It gives me pleasure to hear how all these people talk about how much it helps. They’ve worked hard to develop the ability to play, and they get a huge reward, both physically and emotionally.”
 
Lifelong, Proven Benefits

In her article, Joanne Loewy, director of the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine, explains how playing a wind instrument, like the harmonica or recorder, not only builds lung capacity but also helps patients control their breathing and regulate heart rate and blood pressure. She writes of an asthma patient who, for many years, had relied on a quick-relief inhaler when experiencing shortness of breath. Through learning to play the recorder, she learned breathing techniques she can now use instead of her inhaler.
 
My aunt Sally was a natural, playing piano by ear — as they used to call it. But since not everyone has that gift, there are many websites that offer instruction on playing harmonica, as well as most other instruments. As Zoe encourages, “Learn to play an musical instrument. and it just might change your life.”