Music Therapy and Child Trauma

Vienna Boys ChoirWant to heal developmental trauma in kids?  Create children’s choirs, I wrote last week.   Dr. Bruce Perry says “patterned, repetitive, rhythmic regulation” is what regulates the brain stem, and when it’s not regulated, we can’t truly reach the rest of a child’s brain.

The brain science studies have been done on yoga, meditation, EMDR and so on — not on Bach.  But is that only because those scientists were never given the chance to sing Bach?  Chalk it up to the decline of education.  What if Bessel van der Kolk had sung in the Vienna Boys’ Choir?  (Ok, so he’s from Holland…)  Or haven’t I seen the brain science studies on choirs?  Please leave me a comment!

Plus: there’s a lot of science that shows music helps shape babies in the womb — and keeps them alive when they need it.  Science shows this “medical music therapy” helps people of all ages.  Put this with the fact that children’s choirs have been a keystone of civilization since at least 700BC  [FNO] and we start to see a pattern.

The Music in Your Cells

What we do know is that everybody loves music because every body loves music.  Music is literally built into the human cells, especially brain cells from the hour of conception.  Our bodies physically need it. Infants and children know that instinctively.  “The first music encoded deep within your memory are the earliest vibrations that made you – the rhythms and tempos of your first cells,” writes Galina Mindlin, MD, Columbia University Professor of Psychiatry. [FN1]

“As your cells began to develop with the comforting rhythms of your mother’s heartbeat and the whooshing low frequency sounds vibrating through her placenta and your umbilical cord, these first musical scores began entrainment (two or more rhythms synchronizing into one) in your brain and orchestrating the essence of music for your entire being.  So from your first spark of life, your brain was already establishing the relationship for how music affects you today…

“Newborns can almost immediately show some memory of sounds they encountered in the womb… Before any of us is capable of speaking words, we can recognize changes in notes and rhythmic patterns… Throughout all this development, lyrical and comforting ‘motherese,’ the singsong way in which parents speak to their children, plays a significant role in instilling feelings of calm, safety, and love…

“By only their 14th week, children can distinguish their mother’s footsteps from anyone else’s, and discriminate between their mother’s voice and a stranger’s… At the beach on any given day, we can see a man or woman lying in the sand… listening to the whoosh of waves and the easy hush of wind, smiling like a baby…”

“Music in its most primodial form links our brain to vibrations we experienced as babies that have both long- and short-term effect on our brains’ circuitry.  The core characteristics of music – rhythm, harmony, synchrony, resonance, and dissonance – can affect frequencies in our brain and extend their influence on our hormones, neurotransmitters, and essential enzymes, and can ultimately affect our focus, feelings, moods, motivation” and more. [FN2]

Music Therapy Saves Preemies

Joanne Loewy Sings to BabyDr. Joanne Loewy, Director of the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at New York’s Beth Israel Hospital, saves lives of premature babies (and other patients) using music to replicate the auditory environment in the womb. I haven’t asked Dr. Loewy about choirs, but to me this work says worlds about what singing can do to regulate the physiology and thus the brains of kids.   Dr. Loewy sings to a newborn, above. [FN 3]

I first met Dr. Loewy by email shortly after the Beth Israel team she heads published a major study on medical music therapy for preemies  on  April 15, 2013.  First off, I was blown away to learn there exists a Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine  at the top hospital in New York City.  It’s official: music is essential to humans!  [FN4]

I was also delighted when she invited me to see her for music therapy to heal my pre-concious anxieties from being an unwanted pregnancy.  Gosh, she trains music therapists worldwide and teaches  at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. It was too long a commute from California.  But I started music therapy anyway and it sure works for me.

“By re-creating a womb-like environment through sound and music, music therapy has been shown to deepen infant sleep-state, support infant self-regulation, assist in the stabilization of breathing and heart rates, enhance parent/infant bonding, sooth irritability, re-enforce feeding/sucking rhythms and weight gain, and promote a sense of safety during painful procedures” faced by many preemies,” she wrote.

“Historically, we thought premature infants were best left alone in a quiet, closed incubator with no stimulation,” she told the press when the study came out. “But more recently, we’re seeing that the right kind of stimulation — particularly live, interactive music — can enhance babies’ neurological function and increase their quiet-alert state. . . . the more we can regulate the sound environment, the better they’re going to fare.”  [FN 5]

Dr. Loewy’s team studied  272 infants in 11 hospital neonatal intensive care units (NICUs). They found that live music matched to babies’ breathing and heart rates enhanced feeding and sleeping patterns. Parent-selected lullabies also seemed to promote bonding between parents and babies, easing the stress of the chaotic NICU environment.

The music also lowered parental stress, the study found — which is key, because anxious, fearful, clueless parents produce developmental trauma in their kids.  Parent-preferred melodies and entrained live rhythm and breath sounds enhanced quiet alert and sleep states, suck response, and oxygen saturation in premature infants and also  significantly reduce fear and anxiety perception in parents, they found.

Over two weeks, the 272 premature babies underwent several sessions of two instruments, singing and no music at all.  The instruments and lullaby singing style were intended to approximate womb sounds, said Dr. Loewy.  Two-tone heartbeat rhythms were played on a “gato box,” a rectangular wooden drum.  [Bruce Perry and Bessel van der Kolk speak  extensively on the primacy of the mother’s heart rate in determining fetal brain development. Dr. van der Kolk strongly recommends heart-rate variability regulating therapies for trauma. -kb]

Whooshing sounds [like those in the womb referenced by Dr. Mindlin and I suspect by numerous researchers] were produced by an “ocean disc,” a cylinder containing shifting metal beads.

For melody, parents were asked for a favorite song.  If it wasn’t a lullaby (one chose “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”; another, “Pick Up the Pieces”), therapists slowed it, changed meters to lullaby-like waltzes and adjusted lyrics.

“Lots of times you see parents bopping the baby up and down on their lap, and there’s no purpose to it,” Dr. Loewy said. “You don’t feel the music intention as much as if you have a song that a parent has chosen.”  If parents did not specify, researchers used “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”  Tempos were coordinated with babies’ vital signs, indicated not only by monitors but also by baby  eye movements and its chest’s rise and fall.

Researchers found that the heart beat gato box, the whooshing ocean disc and the  singing, all slowed a baby’s heart rate, though singing seemed most effective.  Singing also increased the time babies stayed quietly alert.  Sucking behavior improved most with the gato box. Breathing rate slowed most and sleeping was best with the ocean disc. Babies hearing songs their parents chose had better feeding behavior and gained more calories than those who heard “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” But the “Twinkle” babies had slightly more oxygen saturation in their blood.

“Many NICUs are noisy, or people put on random lullabies that are recorded,” Loewy said. “But it’s not just any recorded lullaby, it’s the power of the parent’s voice synchronized therapeutically . . . and the other two sounds can have a therapeutic benefit.”

Kathy’s news blogs expand on her book “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.


FNO  Chorus members in Greek theater were trained in childhood from around 700 BC.  Greek theater always included a chorus, whose members also danced and spoke, but also sang:   Both boys and girls were trained to sing:
Greece and Rome founded many children’s singing schools:
The Schola Cantorum in Rome was formed in the seventh century to train boys in reading and singing.

FN1  Galina Mindlin, M.D., Ph.D is Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and Supervising Attending Physician at the Department of Psychiatry in St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital Center.  She is Board Certified in psychiatry and neurology.  See also:

FN2  Mindlin, Galina MD, PhD, “Your Playlist Can Change Your Life: 10 Proven Ways Your Favorite Music Can Revolutionize Your Health, Memory, Organization, Alertness,”  Sourcebooks, Inc., Naperville, IL, 2012

FN3  Joanne V. Loewy, DA, LCAT, MT-BC,  is Director,
Louis Armstrong Center for Music & Medicine,
Beth Israel Medical Center, New York, NY  Websites: and
She is also Co-Editor-in-Chief, “Music and Medicine”

FN4  “The Effects of Music Therapy on Vital Signs, Feeding, and Sleep in Premature Infants,” Joanne Loewy,  Kristen Stewart, Ann-Marie Dassler,  Aimee Telsey,  Peter Homel
Online April 15, 2013; hard copy in May 2013 Pediatrics.
Full Text in PDF:
What’s Known on This Subject:
Recorded music, parent voices, and sung lullabies have been shown to increase oxygen saturation, nonnutritive sucking, and weight gain in premature infants.
What This Study Adds:
Parent-preferred melodies and entrained live rhythm and breath sounds can enhance quiet alert and sleep states, suck response, and oxygen saturation in premature infants and significantly reduce fear and anxiety perception in parents.

FN5  Pam Belluck, “Live Music’s Charms, Soothing Premature Hearts – Preemies and Sound,” New York Times, April 15, 2013,
Maureen Salamon,  “Lullabies Soothe Preemies, Parents Alike,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 15, 2013 [webpage removed]

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One response to “Music Therapy and Child Trauma

  1. I’m curious where you got the quote, “The first music encoded deep within your memory are the earliest vibrations that made you – the rhythms and tempos of your first cells,” writes Galina Mindlin, MD, Columbia University Professor of Psychiatry. I was going to use it in a blog but want to find its original publication.

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