Music is a powerful and timeless stimulant, uniting body and mind in rhythm. Eliciting strong memories, it can be used as a therapeutic method to deal with stress, reshape behavior and encourage emotional development. In the 2011 movie, The Music Never Stopped, estranged son Gabriel is no longer able to form new memories due to a brain tumor. His father, Henry, seeks help and reunites with his son through musical therapy. Father and son are able to enjoy a relationship again while listening to the Grateful Dead because of the memories the sounds invokes for Gabriel. In real life, music therapy is used in a variety of settings, and some jails and prisons have incorporated it in an effort to rehabilitate offenders of all ages. Learn how music therapy can be used in prison reform to help achieve civil behavior both inside and outside the prison walls.

What is Music Therapy?

According to the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA), music therapy is the “clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.” It can be used to improve:

  • Emotional development
  • Social skills
  • Cognitive functioning
  • Motor skills

Therapy methods can include:

  • Listening to songs
  • Singing alone or with a group
  • Playing instruments
  • Dance and movement
How Music Therapy Can Help Inmates

Inmates represent all ages, races, and backgrounds, but they all have one thing in common: memories associated with music. Because incarcerated populations experience a variety of behavioral, social, psychological and communicative challenges, music therapy can strike the right chord to connect the notes and create positive change for multiple needs simultaneously. Research has shown that anxiety was reduced in participating inmates after only two weeks of music therapy.

Just as music can assist in physical rehabilitation, it can also mark time in the prison setting to sculpt cognitive and behavioral rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is facilitated through memory when inmates hear the songs they remember from their lives before prison. The therapist understands that these memories may not all be positive and can use negative reactions to provoke discussions and encourage change. Harmonies experienced for the first time, or created by the inmates themselves, can be used to counter negative behavior and thought patterns and introduce new positive ones.

Neurologic Music Therapy (NMT) can help with memory training through a variety of techniques:

  • Echoic Mnemonics Training works with memory recall and the senses registered by the memories.
  • Procedural Mnemonics develops an understanding of rules and the skills necessary to abide by them.
  • Declarative Mnemonics deals with episodic memories.
  • Associative Mood and Memory Training helps identify moods and how they shape behavior.

By identifying mood and behavior, the inmate and therapist can work together to rewrite responses so the inmate can function as a law-abiding citizen. Some specific goals in correctional facilities that are encouraged by the AMTA include:

  • Increasing self-awareness
  • Improving reality testing and problem-solving skills
  • Improving respect for others, including peers and authority figures
  • Developing healthy verbal and non-verbal communication skills
  • Decreasing impulsiveness through practical techniques
  • Accepting responsibility for thoughts and feelings
  • Learning relaxation and coping skills
  • Improving physical conditioning
  • Developing effective leisure skills
  • Exploring feelings and making positive changes in mood states

Additionally, many inmates battle with drug addiction and psychological disorders. Music therapy may also assist in specialized rehab treatment in these cases. For inmates with substance abuse problems and mental health problems, this kind of therapy can provide treatment in the five stages of diagnostic treatment:

  1. Engagement
  2. Crisis intervention
  3. Stabilization
  4. Active treatment
  5. Recovery
The Down Beat

Like any therapeutic treatment, the outcome depends not only on the expertise of the practitioner but also the willingness of the patient to make the necessary changes to achieve his or her goals. Multiple factors determine the effectiveness of any therapy, including music therapy:

  • Age, gender and socioeconomic background of the offender
  • Cognitive, physical, emotional and psychological state of the offender
  • Amount of time spent in correctional facilities
  • Degree of connection with family, friends, and community
  • Social pressures to conform or not conform to the environment
  • Substance, physical, sexual or emotional abuse

Some offenders may not respond to music, or they may respond negatively due to negative memories elicited by it. Although a well-trained therapist will have proven techniques at his or her disposal to counter negative responses, the final responsibility lies with the inmate to change the response to a positive one.

Another downside to music therapy is the effect of “escaping reality.” Although this can be a positive result and help the inmate feel empowered to make the necessary changes in life, it can also have negative effects. If not carefully monitored, the freedom factor of music may empower the inmate to revolt against the pressures of conformity and choose to revert back to a life of crime. Careful documentation of every inmate’s progress may or may not alert practitioners to this circumstance.

Music is a universal language that can be used and enjoyed in many ways. With the help of qualified therapists, prison reform may be possible for some inmates. Only time will tell.

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