Gently lowering the blockades: music therapy at the Swiss Paraplegic Centre

The art of pain relief using sounds and vibrations is almost as old as mankind itself. With the mechanization of medicine in modern times, this type of therapy fell into disuse – but is now experiencing something of a Renaissance. At the Swiss Paraplegic Center (SPZ) in Nottwil, music therapy is well established as part of the rehabilitation program for patients with quadriplegia.

In the ancient art of healing, music, medicine and psychotherapy were seen as one indivisible unit. One source from that time is the Bible, when David plays the harp to help cure King Saul’s depressions. Egyptian papyrus rolls on medicine (around 1500 BC) describe the healing effects of music on the human body.  In many primitive tribes, the medicine man would treat diseases by trying to find the sound or song that the patient – or the spirit living inside him – would respond to. Clear evidence of the therapeutic effects of music can also be found in children’s chants, nursery rhymes and lullabies, as well as in Christian hymns. Then something that had been treasured and preserved for thousands of years was gradually pushed into the background by the onward march of science and the inventions of modern technology. But only for a while, for in the twentieth century the tide began to turn. As a healing counterbalance to the increasing pressures of a rapidly changing life, and as a complement to traditional medicine, music therapy experienced an upturn that it maintains today.

Magical transformation

When people play or listen to music, a magical transformation takes place inside them. It brings about both physical and psychological changes. Music relaxes, releases, stretches and reorganizes. Melody reconnects the disconnected. Rhythm creates order in the midst of chaos. Music brings movement into the sickroom and stimulates in the patient a new awareness of their powers. Music has an energy that brings succor. In his book “Worte wie Klang aus der Stille” (“Words like sound out of the silence”) the late virtuoso violinist Yehudi Menuhin wrote: “Music is essential to life. It keeps us in contact with the totality of the universe as part of the vibrating cosmos.”

Feelings become sounds

Under the sensitive and supportive guidance of a specially trained member of staff, patients with quadriplegia, along with other patients at the Swiss Paraplegic Center in Nottwil, discover through the active playing of a musical instrument how to bring harmony into a difficult and distressing situation. Katja speaks of her lack of confidence following her accident and her fears for the future. She then picks up the instrument with which she can best express her current feelings. The ocean drum, a flat round drum that makes a sound like crashing waves. She plays it and listens to the sound. Afterwards, when we talk, she declares that it has enabled her to “hear” her own emotional dynamics: anger, sadness, hope. These feelings flow in and out of her real life in swift succession. She is now trying to find separate instruments for them: the samba rattle for anger, a glockenspiel for hope, and the wah wah pipes for silence, sadness.

The world is sound

Our lives begin with hearing and even at the end we can still hear musical and acoustic signals right up until we die. All our other senses shut down much sooner. I hear – therefore I am. Sounds enter through our ears and brain and affect our whole being. The Swiss Paraplegic Center has an extremely impressive ‘sound temple’ that stands 3.8 meters (12+ feet) high and weighs 400 kilos (over 880 pounds). The sounds from 15 brass pipes, hung on a larchwood frame, are tuned to one another in pure fifths. Sometimes the frequencies are so low that the vibrations cannot be perceived by the human ear. But the chimes touch and move just at the point where body and mind need it most. The vibrations strengthen and harmonize.
Patients can sit, lie or stand inside the sound temple. Here they feel protected and safe. Although paraplegia may restrict the outside radius, people experience an inner breadth and a flowing present. Inner turmoil finds a path towards the outside. Like with Miriam: she has paraplegia and since her accident has difficult articulating. She therefore expresses her feelings to her therapist using electronic aids.

Two-way opening

The sounds give Miriam an opening to the world outside. In her memory she sees the calm sea or wants to fly away. But at the same time she’s opening herself up inwards too. These effects – the intensified love of life and finding an equilibrium that both stabilizes and releases – can have a positive influence on the healing and development process for people in all kinds of situations. Success through music therapy isn’t connected to any special previous knowledge. That’s because the emphasis is on free and spontaneous improvisation and experimentation. Both have the same goal: that patients should listen to their inner voice and find answers through their body’s response to the music. Just to try out what makes them feel good and improves their condition.

Source: Regula Curti and Beatrice Loeffel, Paraplegie Magazine, Paramedia.