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Rhythm as a Healing Element


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Last week I talked about rhythm – the most basic element of music – and how we are born to live rhythmically. We are born with a basic beat, a heartbeat, and live our lives at regular intervals, minute to minute, hour by hour, day and night, month to month, year to year.

Rhythm sets us up to predict: we pretty much know what comes after 1, 2, 3, _. But what happens, although we continue to have a heartbeat day and night and year to year, when we live our lives with unpredictability? What if we go to school and come home at the same time every day, but we don’t sleep or eat at regular intervals? What happens when Monday through Sunday, day and night happen at regular intervals, but the events, or our perceptions of them, don’t occur regularly? How do we count on what will probably happen next? How do we learn to trust ourselves or life? How does this affect our brains? Life is full of unpredictability, but we as humans count on the large amount of predictability to organize, to feel safe, to trust, and to be able to move forward.

Rhythm, the forward movement element of music, is the element of predictability of regularly scheduled output. It only makes sense how a very natural element of life can be used to heal without bringing any foreign chemicals in to alter the healthy functioning that already exists.

I have noticed that groups of children who live with unpredictability of one kind or another thrive unpredictability. When the children with chaotic lives are put together in a group, rhythm becomes my magnetic, magic wand, pulling everyone the same direction. For example, the two day-and-night autistic brothers, one who craves calm and serene, the other craves loud excitement and activity, have obviously different needs and strengths.  As I play my guitar to the grounded swinging of the swing of one brother, the other comes in unannounced, hops on a swing, and automatically, the boys are swinging in sync, going at the same rate, the same direction, the same time to the guitar beat (

The music alters back and forth from major to minor keys to delight each boy’s craving, yet the magnetic beat stays the same, pulling each boy’s focus towards myself and towards one another, and even pulling the swings in the same direction. This happens frequently. How often do you see children on swingsets that are swinging at the same rate?

When I work with children who are born into this world with brains and bodies that perceive the world around in a predictable fashion, but the world around them does not provide that predictability, the result is chaos. Once again, my pervading, magnetic wand, providing the repetitive, predictable sequencing these children need, becomes the leading force in this group. The basic rhythm either energizes or calms, providing containment for the group. The rhythm pulls their attention together and their bodies and minds into synchronized focus. Sometimes only briefly, but over time they do it on their own. They need a predictable healing agent before they can behave like “expected.” “Expected” isn’t that based on prediction, what we know is going to happen. Children need predictability over time in order to experience “expectation” and understand it. I find the amazing thing about rhythm is that it is so strong of a healing component, that if I have a new group of children with little experience of predictability, and I am, at the moment, the only one providing it, it takes a little repetition for them to be able to experience, understand, rely on, and then act in sync with expectation (or rhythm). However, if this same group gains enough experience with predictability and rhythm, and a new child, filled with chaos and unpredictability, is introduced to the group, the pull of the group rhythm makes the experience time shorter for the new child in order to fall into focus with the rest. I find that predictability-experienced children, after they have learned how to act with expectation (or respond to the beat), can then tolerate and respond quickly to layers of the elements placed on top of the rhythm, such as melody, harmony, silence, and the variation of rhythm. When new children are introduced to the group, the layers, if any, need to be then highly predominated by the pervading wand of rhythm.

If rhythm can be such a strong healing agent, then can we expect to place a metronome in the room with the same result? Do babies thrive when they are placed in a playpen, fed, and changed at regular intervals, but have little human contact? Of course not. Rhythm is the element, but we, as Music Therapists, are the agents who provide the element in the proper dosage.

Antoinette Morrison MT-BC





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