April was an extremely busy and extremely wonderful month here at the George Center for Music Therapy (GCMT). Therapists and clients were traveling to the Southeastern Regional American Music Therapy conference, and two of our programs had their semester performances. On April 12, Singing with Parkinson’s presented a program of Celtic and American music for the Gwinnett APDA support group. And on Friday, April 27, our Any Dream Will Do Performing Arts Group presented “You Can’t Stop the Beat!: Broadway in 3 Acts” at Alpharetta High School.
As I sat down to write this article, I was considering the vast diversity of populations we serve at GCMT and I found these two very different programs on my mind. One, a therapeutic choir for individuals with Parkinson’s Disease (PD), where adults from the greater Atlanta area congregate once a week to engage in Neurologic Music Therapy exercises and learn music specifically chosen to support their vocal production and maintenance. The other, a social skills performing arts group for teens and young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Down Syndrome, and other developmental and neurological conditions designed to facilitate interpersonal interaction and socialization. What could these groups have in common?
Community is a word that means many different things to many different people. It can elicit the image of a neighborhood, a choir, a church, a baseball team. It can refer to a geographical area as vast as metro-Atlanta, or a group of twelve individuals that come together to make music once a week.
At GCMT, we often provide music therapy via individual sessions, designing very specific treatment plans and harnessing the vast and complex power of music to accomplish individualized goals for our clients. But we also have developed and are continuing to develop therapeutic programming that brings people together. In fact, our Summer Bucket Drumming and GROW (Girls Reaching our World) Social Skills Groups start NEXT WEEK! As mentioned above, these programs still target specific therapeutic goals related to motor functioning, communication, and cognition. But they also provide the therapeutic benefit of establishing and building a social network, or a community. And research suggests that this is just as important.
If you have ever been a part of a team, a choir, or a theater group, you probably have a sense of the benefits of community and consistent interaction with a social peer group, such as improved mood, a greater sense of purpose, etc. But research shows real implications for the psychological and physical benefits of socialization and community, and the detriments experienced when these things are lacking. A study published by Xie et al. (2005) demonstrated positive correlations between perceived peer isolation (PPI) in teens and levels of depression. Additional studies suggest that social isolation can be detrimental to the immune system (Liu & Wang, 2005; Hermes et al., 2005), and a 2015 meta-analysis of existing literature presented findings that social isolation corresponds with increased mortality rates (Lundstad et al., 2015). In other words, lack of a social network (i.e. community) can seriously impact your physical and mental health in a negative way. Conversely, research shows that positive social support correlates with decreased stress, strengthened immune systems, and increased recovery speed in cases of illness (Comer, 2015).
Now anybody can be at risk for decreased social interaction. But for the clients we serve at GCMT, these risks are exacerbated by their diagnoses. Individuals with ASD and developmental differences are often prevented from interacting with peers due to motor dysfunctions and atypical forms of expressive communication. Older adults with dementia and Alzheimer’s lose their connections to friends and family with whom they are familiar. Individuals with PD and TBI may lose access to community activities they could once participate in.
This is where the benefits of music therapy, particularly group music therapy, come in. In 2015, researchers Eiluned Pearce, Jacques Launay and Robin I. M. Dunbar published a study documenting the positive social implications of group singing. Findings suggested that individuals who participated in group singing sessions (in other words, choir rehearsals) developed a cohesive social bond with one another at a significantly faster rate than control groups. This means that the simple act of singing in a group with total strangers created a measurable sense of community and social support in a way that was more cohesive and efficient than other social activities and interventions. Additionally, qualitative results from a study published in the Journal of Music Therapy detailed the social and emotional benefits of weekly group singing interventions for individuals with PD (Elefant et al., 2012). Benefits included improved mood, development of relationships with individuals with similar diagnoses, and establishment of an emotional outlet.
Group musical activities also provides means of nonverbal collaboration for individuals who may have unreliable spoken communication or who may require significant support to interact with their peers in other environments. Through engagement in group musical activities such as group instrument play, group singing, or group dancing, participants are able to interact with one another in a structured and motivating environment. In fact, research suggests that synchronized musical output can improve social skills in clients with ASD in particular (Yoo & Kim, 2018). In other words, not only does music serve as a bonding agent to unite peers in collaborative action, but it also provides context within which appropriate social skills can be fostered and developed.
These social bonds suggested by research are very perceptible realities that we see at GCMT every day. As the director of Singing with Parkinson’s, it has been a joy to watch the participants establish rapport with one another, exchanging jokes during rehearsals and going out to lunch with their fellow singers afterwards. Similarly, as one of the therapists leading Any Dream Will Do, it is incredible to watch the relationships developing between our students and their families, and to witness the immense support and love these amazing people offer to one another.
We know that we are social beings, inherently designed to live and interact with others as we learn from one another and taking emotional comfort and validation in our interaction with our peers. Community is a basic human right and necessity, without which we starve our brains and our bodies.
Comer, R.J. (2015). Abnormal Psychology. (p. 342). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.
Elefant, C., Baker, F.A., Lotan, M., Lagesen, S.K., Skeie, G.O. (2012). The Effect of Group Music Therapy on Mood, Speech, and Singing in Individuals with Parkinson’s Disease - A Feasibility Study. Journal of Music Therapy, 3(49). 278-302.
Hermes, G.L., Rosenthal, L., Montag, A., & McClintock, M.K. (2005). Effects of social isolation stress on immune response and survival time of mouse with liver cancer. World Journal of Gastroenterology. 11(37). 5902-5904.
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: A meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10, 227-237.
Pearce, E., Launay, J., and Dunbar, R.I.M. (2015). The ice-breaker effect: singing mediates fast social bonding. Social & Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.
Xie, B., Chou, C.P., Spruijt-Metz, D., Liu, C., Xia, J., Gong, J., Li, Y., & Johnson, C.A. (2005). Effects of perceived peer isolation and social support availability on the relationship between body mass index and depressive symptoms. International Journal of Obesity, 29. 1137-1143.
Yoo, G. E & Kim, S. J. (2018) Dyadic Drum Playing and Social Skills: Implications for Rhythm-Mediated Intervention for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Music Therapy. 55 (3). 340-372.