Music as medicine: How music therapy works and is being used in WV

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WDTV)- Last Monday we took a ride through the brain to see how music "tunes" us in to the world. Now, how is music being used as medicine right here in our communities?

The main idea with music therapy is to use music to help people reach goals that have nothing to do with music. As for its progression here in our area, there's definitely been a crescendo, but it has a couple road blocks to get over to keep hitting the high notes.

"Music is a key that unlocks many, many things that were never seen before in patients and clients," said Amy Rodgers Smith, Owner of On A Better Note music therapy.

Smith says those patients and clients could be anyone. Music therapy ranges from pre-natal care to hospice care and anything in between. It's an individualized, therapeutic approach using music to help someone reach a non-musical outcome. That's from helping people in alcohol and drug rehab centers to teaching premature babies how to gain weight.

"When the baby sucks on the pacifier it turns the music on," explains Dr. Dena Register, Director of the Music Therapy program at WVU. "What they figure out very quickly is that cycle of 'when I stop sucking the music stops, so I'm gonna keep sucking so that the music will keep playing.'"

Register likens music therapy to other types of therapy, where you go to a music therapist for a specific issue you need to see a professional for. They even work in cooperation with other types of therapists, like when it comes to motivation.

"We may go in and use music in cooperation with physical therapy in order to get them up and going and continuing and sticking to their treatment," Register said.

Smith works with a lot of children on the autism spectrum. She says musical expression takes a lot of the social and communication pressures off of them.

"You can take that starting point, that building of the relationship and that comfort level of opening up non-verbally with the music instruments and then start to help them feel more comfortable with singing and then verbalizations," Smith said. "And that's where the real therapy work comes in. Where you make that transition for them and then taking it into other environments where music isn't involved. So the skills are then generalized."

So how is all of this progressing in our state? Register says music therapy college students need 1200 clinical hours and a six month full-time internship. The problem there? There aren't any here.

"If we were sending students out tomorrow we would have nowhere to send them in the state of West Virginia. We're working to develop internships here," Register said.

Smith is from West Virginia, but had to go elsewhere to get her degree before she could come back. However, she sees a bright future for music therapy right here.

"I'm very passionate about students being able to have the option to stay in West Virginia. And then of course having the internship in West Virginia is gonna make the transition easier for them to stay in West Virginia in their home communities and start music therapy programs and fill music therapy jobs and to grow that here in our state," she said.

5 News sat in on a music therapy session with a young boy from Shinnston. Next Monday, "tune" in to see what a session looks like and what music therapy has done for him.