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Musical therapy is making breakthroughs

Technology enables people with severe physical and mental disabilities to communicate and enjoy a more enriching life.

January 22, 2012|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Born with cerebral palsy, Dan Ellsey blossomed with help from Tod Machover, right.
Born with cerebral palsy, Dan Ellsey blossomed with help from Tod Machover,… (MIT Media Lab, MIT Media…)

There is a great deal of music in the world, and no one knows exactly why. But it does have its ready uses. The music business can make you rich and famous. The pianist Christopher O'Riley admitted in The Times last week what a lot of classical musicians won't: He learned the piano, at least in part, to attract the attention of girls.

As I write this, a sparkling new recording of Tod Machover's "Sparkler," an infectious overture for orchestra and live electronics, is playing on my stereo and making itself useful. The CD, "but not simpler…," is drowning out trucks on a nearby home construction site whose backup beeps are loud enough to wake the dead a mile away. "Sparkler" is more effectively fueling my fingers as I type than was my morning double cappuccino. The music is lifting my spirits and making writing almost fun. Even so, I'm not getting the greatest, if least explicable, pleasure "Sparkler" can provide. That's obtained by giving the score undivided attention.

Machover, an intriguing futurologist as well as an inventive composer, runs the departments in hyper-instruments (acoustical instruments given spiffy electronic features) and opera of the future at MIT's ultra-high-tech Media Lab. Last week, he was at UC Santa Barbara to speak on "Music, Mind and Health: Diagnosis, Treatment, and Well-being through Active Sound," one of four lectures he's given recently at the university's Sage Center for the Study of the Mind.

Music, Machover said, touches on just about every aspect of cognition. There are theories that music exists to exercise the mind and to help coordinate its separate functions. Music lovers intuitively know what researchers have verified, that music modulates our moods, helps us move, stimulates our language skills, strengthens our memories and can wondrously bring about emotional responses without their bothersome consequences.

The practical applications of music for healing are irresistible. Cutting-edge music therapy can help Parkinson's patients walk, enables the autistic to rehearse their emotions and provides opportunities for stroke victims to regain speech and motor movement. Music is usually the last thing Alzheimer's sufferers recognize. It is our final way to communicate with them, and now it seems music can play a significant role in forestalling Alzheimer's.

This is terrific news. I'm also looking forward to the optimistic day when we will be reimbursed for the price of symphony and opera tickets by BlueCross BlueShield.

But that's not all. In an inspiring feedback loop, Machover and his MIT minions, which include some of the nation's most forward-looking graduate students, are applying their musical gadgets to therapy. The process of making remarkable restorative advances is changing how they think about and make music. And that could affect how the rest of us might think about and make music in the not-so-distant future.

It all began with Hyperscore, a program Machover developed to enable children to compose by drawing and painting on a monitor. A sophisticated computer program translates their artwork into a musical score.

Machover's team took Hyperscore to Tewksbury Hospital outside of Boston, which serves patients with severe physical and mental disabilities, including the homeless. The residents, many of whom were physically unable to communicate or were otherwise uncommunicative, discovered their inner composer. Through Hyperscore they found they could express themselves in a way that bypassed language.

A few patients with hopeless prognoses and no meaningful life had significant enough changes in their pathology that they could actually think about at least partial recovery. Some found a decrease in auditory and visual hallucinations. There were behavior changes in many that allowed for socialization.

Dan Ellsey became the model patient. Born with cerebral palsy and unable to speak, he was forced to communicate with a clumsy headset that pointed to letters to spell out words. He had little control of his body movements. He was in his early 30s, had never been more than five miles from where he was born and seemed doomed to spend a cocooned life in the hospital.

The Media Lab scientists designed a more refined headset for Ellsey that not only inspired him to compose (he turned out to have interesting musical ideas) but even allowed him to perform by controlling tempo, loudness and articulation. He blossomed, and Ellsey, while still a severely affected cerebral palsy patient, has become an active participant in the Hyperscore program, performing, making CDs and teaching other patients. He was a star at the 2008 TED conference.

What this work with music therapy has shown Machover and other researchers is the potential for what he has dubbed "personal" music. This will be a music tailored to an individual's needs, be it medicinal or simply a matter of taste.

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