Eric B. Miller, a music therapist in Phoenixville, Pa., uses real-time data about patients' physiological responses to inform how he runs sessions. He recently discussed a biofeedback method at the Interdisciplinary Society for Quantitative Research in Music and Medicine conference in Athens, Ga.
"The idea is that this information is informing me as a music therapist how I want to be playing my guitar, what tempo I'm going for," he said at the conference.
Conference attendees took turns listening to music while wearing a finger sensor. Through a computer program, a graph appeared on a projector screen showing relative heart rate, heart rate variance and skin conductivity in real time. The computer program then translated the readings from the sensor into tones, which could be heard overlayed with music.
Independent researcher Elijah Easton listened to another conference attendee (full disclosure: it was the author of this article) improvise on the piano. Easton said he found the activity relaxing; Miller noted that Easton's heart rate had decreased after the music stopped.
In a real session, Miller would create a physiological profile of a client by looking at his or her responses to sitting naturally, doing a cognitive task, relaxing and envisioning something emotional. After more relaxation, he would set up the biofeedback system of tones, and challenge the client to lower the tone, an indication of relaxation. Different tones can be assigned to different variables such as heart rate.
The point is helping clients learn the art of self-regulation, of adjusting their own bodies, Miller said.
"The music and the data are both co-therapists," Miller said.
Biofeedback-oriented music therapy can be used in a variety of conditions, including high blood pressure and seizures -- not necessarily instead of mainstream medicine, but in concert with it, Miller said.
"Western doctors may recommend it to complement existing treatment or as a trial in cases of adverse reaction to typical pharmacological remedies," he said.
In a more subtle way, Jantz also uses biofeedback with patients who are already hooked up to monitors at Boston Children's Hospital for medical reasons. When he plays music in the neonatal intensive care unit, he can see what impact strumming his guitar has by observing the heart rate graph.
Fun is part of it
Jantz sees music itself as having an intrinsic therapeutic value, in addition to the positive experience that a person can have with a music therapist. For children in particular, it can encourage them to learn a new skill; sometimes patients who stay at Boston Children's Hospital for longer periods get good at guitar.
Occasionally Jantz has to dress in a surgical gown and gloves, but for the most part the kids don't view what he does as a therapy -- they're just relieved that instead of poking and prodding, he's there to play music with them.
"There's nothing wrong with having fun," he said. "That's part of how it works."
He's prepared for a full repertoire of traditional children's songs, but he has also worked with young kids who love The Beatles. And some teens would rather hear music from their earlier childhood than Justin Bieber.
The phone that pages him, though, doesn't beep or ring to alert him to his next destination.
It vibrates, so as to not interrupt the music.