Power Chord: Music’s healing effect

Music's healing effect hard to quantify, impossible to deny

Musical notes motif


heal in concert

A benefit concert for Colorado Mesa University’s Kathleen Ruhleder, a music faculty member who teaches voice lessons and classes, will be at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 31, at First Congregation Church, 1425 N. Fifth St.

The concert is free but donations will be accepted to help Ruhleder pay medical bills from receiving treatment for a broken leg, which required surgery and physical therapy, as well as lingering bronchitis and a breast biopsy, which Ruhleder learned recently was negative for cancer.

CMU music faculty members, CMU students, choir members from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Grand Valley, and professional area musicians will perform at the community show.

Ruhleder said music has helped her as she heals, so it made sense to incorporate a musical show to help raise funds for bills.

“Music is always part of my life, whether things are going well or are really, really challenging,” Ruhleder said.

Music became Tyme Mientka’s refuge toward the end of his life.

In his final month at an Arizona cancer treatment center, he and his wife Kathryn Mientka lay in his room listening to classic rock on an iPod. Tyme used one earbud. Kathryn used the other.

The memory brings tears to her eyes.

As a professional cellist and founder of the Western Slope Concert Series, Tyme lived and breathed music, so it may seem obvious he wanted music in his final days, but even Kathryn was struck by the peace it gave her husband during the most painful hours.

“He had his iPod stuck in his ear all the time,” she said. “What was fascinating to me is he listened to all kinds of great orchestral music and piano music, but then, the last month, he almost listened exclusively to The Beatles.”

Although the role music has in healing, rehabilitating or simply comforting a person is difficult to quantify, several who have seen the effect music has on people said it truly can change lives.

“Music has the power to heal both the listener and the performer,” said Tim Hayes at the time of the Jan. 15 release of the song “Sandy Hook: Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which he produced with singer/songwriter Ingrid Michaelson and 20 children from Newtown, Conn.

The collaboration to benefit Newtown-area nonprofits gave children the platform to sing about a beautiful place far away from Sandy Hook Elementary School, site of the December school shooting.

Other such benefit songs have been recorded through the years in the aftermath of tragic events (9/11) or natural disasters (Hurricane Sandy) to offer healing to victims and an outlet for people to purchase the song to raise money for charity.

The reason why a rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” can soothe an aching heart or The Beatles’ “Yesterday” can comfort the terminally ill is hard to explain, said neurologist Dr. Joel M. Dean of Grand Valley Neurology.

At its most basic level, music stimulates various regions of the brain unlike the spoken word, which stimulates one specific region, Dean said. For example, when some hear a song, not only do they hear lyrics, melodies and rhythm, they also simultaneously associate the song to a memory or emotion.

Dean knows of situations where patients with Parkinson’s disease show improved balance and gait with music therapy. Music helps stroke victims regain motor power and language skills. Those with Alzheimer’s disease can be calmed through music.

Look no further than the Memory Care Wing of The Commons of Hilltop for numerous examples of the healing power of music, particularly as a calming influence among patients with dementia, said Joni Karp, program coordinator of Memory Care Services at The Commons.

“Don’t you hear a song and go, ‘Oh my gosh,’ and that song takes you to a place?” Karp asked. “It works the same way for them.”

She remembers one resident who experienced increased behavioral issues as his dementia advanced, but the one thing that calmed him down was classical music.

“He could sit in his chair and get lost in the music,” Karp said. “He’d close his eyes and hum. It took him to a place that was safe and calm.”

Music from various genres plays all day through the speakers in the Memory Care Wing thanks to 2,500 songs on Karp’s computer’s external hard drive because “we do realize the benefits of music in people’s lives,” she said.

Karp tells another story of a woman who loves Elvis Presley so much that she teaches jitterbug lessons to his music. She knows all the songs and steps.

“She dances. She smiles. She just lights up,” Karp said.

Then, the woman, who has moderate Alzheimer’s, returns to her room only to come right back out to do it all over again, forgetting what she just did.

In yet another story, a woman in the Memory Care Wing with moderate-to-late-stage Alzheimer’s plays piano. The staff gives her a keyboard to play. She plays by ear and even takes requests because it isn’t uncommon for dementia patients to lose short-term memory but retain memories of every word to every favorite song, Karp said.

Actually, Kathryn Mientka and her husband played at assisted living facilities before Tyme was diagnosed with cancer.

“There was always tears of gratitude,” Kathryn said. “They won’t miss any music, and they were the most appreciative audience in the world.”

As Kathryn watched her husband retreat to music in his final stages of cancer or watched dementia patients come out of their shells simply because of a song, she has realized how important music has become in her own healing as she grieves the loss of Tyme.

“To me, that’s music’s great function: the healing,” Kathryn said. “Somehow opening up that deeper level brings us healing. It helps you go beyond yourself.”


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