Where Psychology and Music Meet

By Xinchen Li 

When Katie Harrill studied at Allegheny College 20 years ago, she was not aware of music therapy as a field until she wrote her final thesis on the two disciplines she majored in: psychology and music. 

For her thesis, Harrill designed a study through which she determined whether children had differing success rates on reading comprehension when exposed to background music. Harrill prepared a composition with controlled music variables in harmony, rhythm, and dynamics to see how those specific variables might affect the children’s performance. Harrill proposed that a specific combination of these musical elements would serve to vitalize a child’s level of awareness and concentration.

“I always knew I wanted to help people with music,” Harrill recalled. “But initially I didn’t know that the field of music therapy existed until I began research for my thesis.”

Harrill was the first student in Allegheny College’s history to combine her final theses (for two majors). Since Harrill graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1996, music therapy has continued to be her passion. It is also her current profession. 

Harrill is now a board-certified music therapist and the supervisor of the Creative Arts Program at Wesley Family Services, an organization that provides behavioral healthcare and therapeutic support services. The program helps children and teenagers with developmental difficulties—such as behavioral, social, psychological, and communication issues—through music therapy. 

Music therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized therapeutic goals, according to the American Music Therapy Association

Children who may struggle with traditional medical therapies tend to find music therapies less-threatening and respond more quickly. “Everyone loves music,” Harrill said. “And music speaks to everyone on a different level.”

Traditional therapies are indispensable for treatments, Harrill acknowledged, but the benefit of using music in a therapy is that music is highly motivating and engaging in itself. 

In traditional speech therapy, a child may be given some visual cues to incite speech, Harrill explained. For example, the therapist may give a child some toy cards and ask the child to identify them. In comparison, a music therapist might give the child a toy car and play a soundtrack, then ask the child to imitate the ‘vrooom’ while pushing the car, she added. 

Children find it easier to get engaged. “[Through music therapies,] Children are working on therapeutic goals while having fun,” Harrill said. 

Furthermore, music is able to facilitate learning, communication, and self-expression. “We can all relate to our own experience of learning ABCs in our childhood—we learn it though melodies,” Harrill observed. “Music helps our brain better recall information.”

Non-verbal children who have difficulty communicating are often engaged in inappropriate or self-stimulatory behaviors, including repetitive body movements or repetitive movements of objects. 

“They are trying to tell us what they want, but we don’t understand what they are saying,” Harrill said. 

Music therapy aims to provide kids with a mode of functional communication, whether it is verbal, nonverbal, or even just signing. 

Harrill and her colleagues may help non-verbal children communicate through songs without lyrics, such as the “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” song from Cinderella, she said. Later on, therapists will help these children imitate vowel sounds and consonant sounds to develop preverbal speech. 

Music helps different people according to their individual needs. “Music can be soothing and relaxing,” Harrill noted. “But it can be highly motivating too.”

For example, when people break up with their boyfriend or girlfriend, some may listen to depressive songs that match their feelings while others listen to upbeat songs that help change their mood, Harrill explained.  

By the same logic, music therapy helps some children calm down and increase their focus while exciting others and helping them become more engaged.

Music therapy is beneficial for individuals in all age groups, Harrill added. The Creative Arts Program serves people aging from two to 75 years old. 

For example, Harrill has treated a group of children diagnosed with various developmental and physical difficulties, such as autism, since they were four years old. But as they grow, Harrill and her colleagues seek a different method, one that better suits their needs, to help them improve their developmental and physical capabilities. 

Harrill helped the children develop a rock band called Flying Sock Monkeys. They came up with the name on their own, and now over 10 years later, they write their own songs and perform in the community.

Establishing the band promotes emotional affection and helps the children develop social skills that they might not otherwise acquire. 

Patients with communicative difficulties often pull back when they are asked a direct question, Harrill explained. But children in this band have learned to communicate their feelings through music, such as by performing an improv on the drum.

“They are using the drum as their voice,” Harrill said. 

Harrill was nominated for 2018 and 2016 Grammy’s Music Educator Award by a group of parents whose children she treats. But she was not eligible to receive the award because the award only goes to current, full-time educators who teach music in public or private schools, Harrill recalled. 

“To see the talent and dedication these kids have, and to see what music therapy and instruction has done to them…it’s life-changing stuff,” one of the parents commented in a news story featuring Harrill and her colleagues. 

Harrill is glad to see that more and more organizations and agencies that work with patients who have developmental difficulties are becoming aware of the effectiveness of music therapy. They have started to adopt it along with other treatments. 

“Since music therapy first started in the United States in 1944, now is the time that it finally becomes recognized,” Harrill said. 

As a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Harrill appreciates the organization’s mission to advocate for the arts and sciences, as her career as a music therapist combines both of the disciplines.

“I would encourage all students to strive to obtain this great honor, as this organization considers more than just academic success and fosters great leaders in our society,” Harrill added.

Xinchen Li is a junior at Duke University, majoring in political science and economics. She transferred to Duke from the University of California, Los Angeles, where she became a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2017. UCLA is home to the Eta of California Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. Duke is home to the Beta of North Carolina Chapter.