By Catherine Leas, CELA

The arts are a gift to all of us, but for individuals with special needs, they hold special promise. When Willy, who has severe developmental disabilities, plays guitar in a country western band on Friday nights, he becomes another person.

Three acoustic guitarist on stage
Willy (far right) plays with a country western band each week.

Willy doesn’t express himself well verbally, but when onstage, his confidence is apparent, and it’s wonderful to watch him. He must improvise, carefully listening to the other musicians in order to figure out chord changes. It’s a creative process of which he’s obviously proud.

The benefits of music therapy are not well understood, but recently Gabrielle Giffords’ remarkable recovery has focused attention on this developing specialty. It’s been documented that music can improve heart and respiratory rates and lower blood pressure. It has also been used to manage chronic pain and to soothe anxiety.

It’s known that music affects specific regions of the brain and that it apparently contributes to the creation of “detours” around damaged areas. Individuals sometimes find it easier to sing words than to say them, helping in the development of communications skills. I read one claim that singing, because it affects tongue movement, can improve chewing. Musical rhythms provide a sense of structure that can facilitate improvements in mobility.

A young man plays the acoustic guitar
When Willy performs, his confidence is apparent.

It’s obvious to anyone in Willy’s audience that his performances are outlets for self-expression, sharpeners of his cognitive skills, and builders of his self-esteem. His social world expands and he becomes part of the community in a very empowering manner. But there’s so much we don’t know about the power of the arts to heal and strengthen. I recently discovered that a friend from my undergraduate work in music is quite involved in neurologic music therapy and was recently awarded a grant to study the effects of movement and music on persons living with Parkinson’s disease. The study of how music affects the brain could benefit all of us as it explores one of the great unknown frontiers, while offering to make life better for individuals with disabilities.