Over the course of just two months, guitarist Tom Peterson from Cincinnati, Ohio, was diagnosed with testicular cancer and lost both his job and the unborn child that he and his wife had been expecting—their first. The one bright spot that year came at Christmastime, when Peterson received a special gift from his family: a PRS Mira that has since become the prize of his guitar collection for reasons difficult to quantify.

“You never think that this inanimate object is going to have such a mental connection with you and get you through your darkest hours,” Peterson shared in PG’s Conversations in the Key of Life podcast (“Episode 3: Guitar as Therapy,” June 2016).

“I can’t tell you how many times—especially dealing with the post-traumatic-stress aspect of things, when the triggers come around—that I’ve just picked up the Mira, laid on my back, and plunked around on it. Nothing in particular … just me and the guitar. When you feel like your body can’t move on to do anything else, it seems like the music—that connection—drives you just for that brief moment while you’re contemplating that next string bend. You forget everything else.”

But beyond the scores of untold private battles like Peterson’s, where music becomes both shield and weapon against encroaching darkness, there are many other instances where guitar has played a more oblique role in therapy, whether through 6-string stars playing benefits for rehab centers, selling their instruments and donating the proceeds, or, in Eric Clapton’s case, both. Anecdotes and superstars aside, the guitar has found a more institutional place in the healing process through the relatively new field of music therapy.

Roots and Branches
To get an overview and history of music therapy and understand the guitar’s place in it, we chatted with health professionals who administer this treatment on a daily basis. One such person is Dr. Robert Krout, professor and director of music therapy in the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Krout also teaches guitar online and has taught at the National Guitar Workshop, as well as guitar workshops around the world.

“Music therapy as a profession started in 1950,” explains Krout. “You use music-based experiences in the relationship with the therapist to help achieve desired health outcomes, whether they be physical goals, social rehabilitation, helping with developmental issues, and so on.”

Krout notes that people are usually referred to a music therapist by a psychiatrist, nurse, social worker, or health insurance company. The therapist then conducts a comprehensive assessment to see if the referred individual might benefit from music therapy. “The patient doesn’t necessarily have to be able to play or sing,” says Krout, “but the therapist would assess whether music might be beneficial for them based on their needs, and also based on how they respond to music either actively or passively.”

Potential music-therapy beneficiaries run the gamut from parents anticipating an addition to their family to individuals who’ve recently lost a loved one—and all sorts of related situations in between: Krout works with expectant mothers and couples in Lamaze training, using music to help with the timing of contractions. He also works with patients who are nearing the end of their lives or are in hospice care. Music therapy can also help bereaved siblings, spouses, children, grandchildren, and other survivors with grief healing. Meanwhile, music can often stimulate forgotten memories or buried emotions in patients with Alzheimer’s or cognitive impairments. Music therapy can also be a great way to communicate with children on the autism spectrum, especially those who are nonverbal.

“I work with people with eating disorders, and often they have a series of verbal defenses that shield them from how they’re feeling. When we do music-based experiences, many of those defenses fall away and they have an emotional reaction to the music—even when they try not to.” —Dr. Robert Krout

The work that Dr. Krout and others are doing with music therapy is often effective where other forms of therapy have come up short—for instance, with clients who lack the verbal skills to benefit from talk-based therapy. Further, it can often make inroads with patients who have highly developed verbal skills that have, for one reason or another, proved an impediment to treatment.

“I work with people with eating disorders, and often they have a series of verbal defenses that shield them from how they’re feeling,” says Krout. “When we do music-based experiences, many of those defenses fall away and they have an emotional reaction to the music—even when they try not to. We can sometimes use that emotional reaction to take the discussion deeper into some of the issues they’re facing.”

Music therapy has been found to be very helpful in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), particularly that suffered by troops returning from combat. Thanks to George Hauer—whose organization Operation: Music Aid supplies thousands of musical instruments to recovering military and armed forces personnel—we chatted with music therapist Bobbi Blake about her experience working with veterans at a VA medical center in Connecticut. She began by explaining that music therapy had its beginnings in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs system after World War II.

“They found when they played music for the veterans it was very helpful in calming them down and soothing them,” Blake says. “They started to investigate it more, and that began the music-therapy research in the ’50s. There has been extensive research ever since. Now, they’re doing neurological work on how music affects the brain. In working with veterans with PTSD, I’m trying to use music to help engage their coping skills and self-expression.”

Like patients with eating disorders, PTSD patients often have a hard time expressing the multitude of profound, overwhelming feelings bubbling just beneath the surface. They can become socially isolated or be fearful of being around other people, crowds, and trying new things.

“Bringing them together to play music is a wonderful way to have them be with other people in a safe place and learn a skill that’s going to help them with anxiety, mood swings, and relaxation,” she adds.

Music therapy can play an important role in treating those with substance addictions. Paul Pellinger, one of the founders of Recovery Unplugged (a Florida-based rehab center), uses music to engage clients in different ways. For example, the center organizes live performances by famous musicians, who share stories and songs related to their own issues with drug addiction and alcoholism.

The program incorporates music as early as the pre-assessment process. Before being accepted, a prospective client is asked about his or her favorite genre of music. “If they say, ‘classic rock,’ I’ll ask if there is a particular song that describes their life,” says Pellinger. “When I pick them up [to bring them to the center], I have that song playing in the van. Right away, rapport is established and they feel heard versus being yelled at. When they get to our facility, we don’t have to deal with a two-week adjustment to the new environment.”

Like people with PTSD or eating disorders, many addicts have trouble accessing their emotions. But music can often be a gateway through those mental walls. “Identifying what you think or feel is an obstacle for most people in general, and it’s especially difficult for addicts—but I guarantee you somebody has written a song about it,” Pellinger says. “We often let song lyrics be the catalyst to verbalize what’s going on. We’re using music not only to engage the clients, but also to make recovery more of a payoff than using drugs. If you look at [a scan of] the brain after somebody takes a hit of crack cocaine, it lights up similar to how it does after hearing a simple chord change.”