Colorado State University’s Moving Through Parkinson’s class isn’t like other movement therapy classes. Yes, they use many of the same exercises to increase balance and range of motion. And yes, they use music to help participants keep the beat to those exercises.
But unlike most programs, the class’s soundtrack isn’t playing on a laptop or a stereo. It’s coming from a group of music therapy students playing instruments in a corner of the room.
This movement therapy class comes with a live band.
Decades of research have already shown that music is therapeutic. Listening to music causes the brain to release the “feel-good hormone” dopamine, which has been associated with decreased anxiety, lower blood pressure and even improved memory and ability to deal with pain.
But changing how you hear that music may amplify some of those benefits. Studies now link live music to increased energy levels for cancer patients, improved engagement in people with dementia and lower stress levels of premature babies. The exact neurological “why” is still being researched. But with Parkinson’s patients the answer is more direct.
In the brain, the areas responsible for hearing and moving are located right next to each other, CSU music therapy instructor Kyle Wilhelm said. This proximity creates a close relationship between the two, making music an ideal therapy for people with Parkinson’s, a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement.
“Music can be magic,” he said. “But just listening to music doesn’t do this all by itself. You know, there has to be something there, facilitating it to make it as effective as it possibly can be. And that’s where live music comes in.”
Wilhelm said it all comes down to rhythm.
“A live musician can manipulate the different parts of the music to emphasize the parts that are going to help the person move better,” he said. “We can emphasize a strong beat that activates the motor areas better than a weak beat.”
A recent class at CSU’s Health and Medical Center started out with a cover of The Eagles hit, “Hotel California.” But this version had a softer melody and heavier emphasis on percussion than the 1976 original.
The musicians/music therapy students are participating in the class as part of their practicum towards their degree. Learning to adjust to fit the needs of the client is an important part of music therapy, CSU music therapy student Femke Verbeeck said.
“It’s not just performing the music, we’re adapting to what we see,” she said. “We’re putting the atmosphere of the group into our music. So, we might be playing ‘Hotel California,’ but it might be a little more mellow than it’s supposed to be -- because the group is that way -- or a little more upbeat. We adapt to the group.”
Adding the live musicians also adds engagement, Verbeeck said.
“You see the change in the way that they’re moving,” she said. “Instead of just walking, they’re kind of swaying a little bit more, and they’re singing along.”
That’s key because when the recorded music is played, it’s easier for participants to just go through the motions.
“You can dance to the Bee Gees at home all you want,” Parkinson’s patient Billie Pawlikowski said. “But it’s not nearly as pleasurable as when you work with a group.”
The 70-year-old said taking part in programs like Moving through Parkinson’s has been “life-changing” for her. When she was initially diagnosed in 2012, she couldn’t get up from a chair without help. Now her therapy classes include dance, yoga and singing.
Why would singing be considered physical therapy?
“Because if you lose those (vocal) muscles, that’s when you can’t swallow,” Pawlikowski said. “Most Parkinson’s patients will die of aspiration pneumonia because you lose your ability to swallow.
“That’s the reason we sing, badly,” she joked.
Her classmate, Susan Coulter, also takes singing therapy classes. This year she joined The Silvertones as a soprano. The Fort Collins choir specifically aims to improve the physical and emotional health of seniors through singing.
“With Parkinson’s your voice gets very soft,” Coulter said. “Singing helps you project better and keep your vocal chords limber.”
Studies also show that when people attend concerts or sing and perform music together, their heart rates and brain waves synchronize. It’s almost like choreography on a physiological level.
For Moving Through Parkinson’s instructor Lisa Morgan, that makes sense. As a dance teacher, she knows first-hand the power of music.
“You see the joy in the participants’ faces, and you just know that it’s healing,” Morgan said. “Dealing with a disease like Parkinson’s there’s challenges at every moment, and life can be so hard, and frustrating, and depressing. So, to come and have fun and be lifted up and sing along to a song that you know with your friends [...] I think those pieces help to balance out what’s happening in the brain and the challenges.”
Song choice also plays a role. It’s important not only in making sure the rhythm, tempo and meter are all making optimal brain connections -- but also in helping participants have an emotional connection, too.
“The best song is the client’s favorite song,” Wilhelm said. “And it’s the best song because they’re going to be the most engaged in it, and they’re going to work with it more. Their brain is going to fire more because there’s going to be memories associated with that song. They’re going to want to sing along.”
Most of the members of Moving Through Parkinson’s are in their 60s and 70s. For them, tunes from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s are big hits, Verbeeck said.
“A couple weeks ago, I did ‘It’s My Party,’ by Lesley Gore,” Verbeeck said. “And it was a party in here, too. They were like, ‘Oh, this brings me back to high school.’ And it was just nice to hear all their memories to the songs, too.”
But for all the talk about brain waves and dopamine and engagement, for 75-year-old Parkinson’s patient Marty Gerber, the reason live music is more therapeutic than recorded music is simple.
“People just like live music,” Gerber said. “Otherwise, nobody would go to concerts. Why would people go to concerts? They’d buy a record […] and that would be it.”