Pulitzer Prize recipient and American playwright Lynn Nottage shared in a recent interview, “What music can do is get to the emotion with incredible economy and efficiency.” This capacity that music holds to reach in and connect to the wide range of emotions we experience as human beings can be a wonderful asset as it accesses those feelings we want to revisit and are ready to express. This becomes challenging and potentially harmful when it relates to unexpressed or unresolved emotions and experiences. The potency of music can reach within us and connect to emotions and experiences we are not prepared or ready to feel, experience, or revisit.
The concept of trauma-informed care has evolved over the past three decades and is being applied in a wide range of community and clinical-based settings with students and clients of all ages. Trauma-informed care encourages teachers, healthcare professionals, and care providers to recognize and understand the role that trauma and the lingering effects of traumatic stress can play in the lives of the individuals they serve. Next, providers discover the steps and practices to implement to avoid adding new stress, triggering, or inadvertently re-traumatizing the client.
While music holds a potency to connect to our emotions, it has many characteristics that can be utilized to address different needs. As a result, it is important to explore with the client healthy uses of music versus unhealthy uses of music. This can help to ensure that the client can make informed decisions about using music in ways that support their health and well-being. This can also help them recognize when they may be using music in unhealthy ways, such as listening to a song repeatedly that keeps them fixated or stuck in a negative mood state.
It is important to determine the client’s needs, how they prefer and feel comfortable engaging with music, their desire to explore new ways of engaging with music, and when they want or need to use music in their day-to-day life. While we can listen, sing, play, improvise, and compose music, in a trauma-informed care approach, it is important to begin where a client feels safe. The client may be ready to move into other types of music experiences in time, but it is important to determine a starting place with music that does not cause the client to experience additional stress.
Listening to music
Listening to music can help to manage stress and foster relaxation. These capacities innate in music are well suited to address the principles of trauma-informed care. Designing and structuring relaxation experiences with slow tempo music (60-80 beats per minute) that is preferred by the client, can help to slow down the heart and breathing rates and foster an overall relaxation response. Listening to music at these slower tempos allows the rhythms of the body to slow down, fostering a relaxation response. This in turn can help a client feel a greater sense of safety. Additionally, working with the client to identify their preferred music gives them the power of choice and helps them to feel more empowered in making decisions for their well-being.
Developing playlists of music that are calming, supportive, or empowering can give the client tools to use and easily access in their everyday life. Working collaboratively with the client in this process can foster a sense of mutuality that helps them in building their knowledge and skills to create their playlists in time. Through this process, they discover what helps them to feel safe, develop a sense of trust as co-creators in the process, and feel empowered as they communicate their preferences, and make choices and decisions about the music. They can create playlists to address a wide array of needs including shifting or elevating their mood, fostering relaxation, providing distraction, or supporting sleep. Wellness Well Played: The Power of a Playlist by music therapist Jennifer Buchanan is a book dedicated to exploring the use of playlists and provides suggestions for creating them to support various aspects of health and wellbeing.
Singing and playing music may be a familiar experience for some clients and very unfamiliar for others. If a client is interested and ready to create music it is important to understand where they feel ready to begin. Do they need something simple? Such as chanting words on a mantra that fosters a sense of safety. Is there a favorite song they want to sing or play that fosters their confidence and helps them feel strong and empowered? Will they feel grounded playing a slow heartbeat rhythm to a relaxing piece of music? The level of simplicity and complexity of the experience can be tailored to meet the needs of the client. Additionally, this type of active engagement with music can be adapted over time as the client is ready to explore engaging in the music in new or more complex ways.
Composing a song or music may feel like a daunting task to some clients. Maybe they have a favorite song or a song that inspires or motivates them? The song can be personalized by rewriting segments of or all lyrics, so the song expresses or communicates the client’s feelings or experiences. Maybe the client is interested in writing a mantra and the melody to chant it to? Supporting the client in using their voice to express what they want to say and/or hear can help them to discover how they can create their sense of safety and can discover a sense of empowerment as they sing and hear their own words in a song.
Improvising music may feel overwhelming to some clients as they may experience it as a lack of structure, which may leave them feeling vulnerable and exposed. If a client is interested and ready to explore improvisation, it will be important to determine the level of structure and support they need to feel safe and to be able to trust their co-creator(s) in the experience. The level of structure can be altered and changed when the client is ready, but it is important to explore this with the client so they are not caught off guard and feel unsafe in the music experience.
Music holds a great capacity to connect to our emotions and experiences, positive, challenging, and negative experiences. Integrating a trauma-informed care approach when using music and in music therapy helps to ensure that clients feel safe, secure, and are not triggered or inadvertently harmed. A vital element of trauma-informed practice is understanding how to use music and its elements to safely address the client’s needs. Clients may not always have an awareness that they have experienced trauma, so infusing a trauma-informed care approach in everyday practice is an important safety measure.
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