The cacophony of sound emanating almost any weekday from this Rockville Centre school is far from symphonic, but for the young music makers whose improvisations are the lifeblood of the place, music is more than entertainment — it’s producing a profound impact on each child’s brain.
At the Rebecca Center, a school for music therapy on the campus of Molloy College, therapists help children with autism overcome some of the neurodevelopmental disorder’s most difficult characteristics.
“They use instruments that require no skills on their part,” said the school’s founder, John Carpente, who has a doctorate in music therapy. “The task of the therapist is to get the child involved in a back-and-forth interaction.”
He calls this back-and-forth interaction a form of communication.
Music has sound, syncopation, melodies and harmonies, and each of those elements plays a role, Carpente and other experts say, in interacting with the autistic brain.
Autism itself is a neurodevelopmental condition evident in early childhood and it varies from one child to another. Some children do not speak; most have difficulty forming relationships and interacting with others, including close family members. Another characteristic is having difficulty understanding abstract concepts.
“One of the fundamental things here is that music doesn’t require language. So for kids who don’t have language skills, music bypasses the need to speak, and through music they can engage in long circles of communication without words,” Carpente said.
A circle of communication can start on any given day with one child drumming — sounding out an intriguing beat. Another may join in, then another, and before long, a chorus of drummers fills the classroom with sound.
Music therapy helps improve attention, behavior and, more strikingly, sparks many of the children “to anticipate different kinds of musical structures,” Carpente said of rhythms and melodies.
Claudia Vassallo of Massapequa, the mother of 5-year-old Jake, said her son thrived in music therapy. She entered him into a study at the Rebecca Center because she knew he loved music and would probably perform well at the school.
She said even though the study ran only six months, the routine exposure to music produced dramatic changes in her son’s ability to begin the process of using his voice.
“Absolutely, there was a difference. One-hundred percent,” said Vassallo, who described her son at the beginning of enrollment as nonverbal. But immersion into music helped spur him to begin using his voice.
“His humming and singing — the ups and downs in his voice — became very apparent,” Vassallo said. She said Jake was drawn to a wide range of instruments: chimes, maracas, drums and piano, to name a few.
The Rebecca Center is in the vanguard of institutions focusing on this form of therapy and is becoming a global hub for investigators examining the importance of improvisational music on autism. The center recently held an international conference on the topic, hosting music therapists and other experts from nearly a dozen countries.
Neuroscientists say music therapy for autism draws from a deep well of research and is revealing how music helps rivet children’s attention on a specific task, control behavior and gain speech and language skills, which can emerge through songs.
More abstract still, Carpente and a growing cadre of researchers worldwide describe music as a potent universal language that affects the brain in ways that have yet to be fully described. The brain on music, experts say, is still a largely unexplored frontier. Melodies, beats, rhythms and lyrics have an indelible impact on the minds of virtually all people, regardless of age and intellectual abilities.
For example, the late Manhattan neurologist and author Oliver Sacks found that older adults with dementia responded robustly to music, recalling melodies and lyrics from decades earlier. That recall was apparent, according to Sacks, even when memories of a lifetime, his patients’ “personal biographies,” were permanently erased by their disease.
Sacks and other experts on the brain theorized that music arouses numerous parts of the organ, but particularly the limbic system, a complex region often associated with mood — and powerful emotions: anger, fear and happiness. More than anything, Sacks found, music is irrevocably intertwined with memory.
Lisha Papert Lercari, director of Music and the Brain, a Manhattan-based music-instruction program in 130 public schools throughout New York City, New Orleans, Chicago and Philadelphia, agreed that musical memories remain intact throughout life. And music not only persists in the brain, she said, it helps students of all intellectual abilities passively learn other important lessons.
“Music is one of the easiest languages to learn and it teaches us numbers, rhythm, timing and language skills,” Lercari said. “I don’t want to be all lollipops, gumdrops and butterflies about it, but music is an irresistible force.”
Effects throughout brain
Last year, neuroscientists at Stanford University reported after studying people who had listened to symphonies that the music was processed throughout the brain, and especially in the cerebral cortex, the so-called left and right hemispheres. There, music engaged attentiveness, decision-making and abstract thinking.
But scientists also have found that music activates brain regions associated with pleasure and reward. Two years ago, for instance, Canadian neuroscientists found that listening to music worked better than anti-anxiety medications for two groups of patients about to undergo surgery.
The group that put on headphones and chilled out listening to music had lower levels of cortisol — a hormone associated with fear and anxiety — than patients who were medicated.
Carpente noted that music therapy has helped some of his students perform extraordinarily well in school long after their time spent in the program.
Years of learning
And so it was on a recent Wednesday afternoon at the Rebecca Center where Carpente reunited with one of his most successful students, Charles Powell, 19, of Baldwin.
Powell entered the Rebecca Center at age 4 having been diagnosed with autism and unable to use language effectively as a small child. He remained a student at the center until age 12. And his eight years of music therapy have paid dividends, he and his former therapist say.
Powell is a sophomore at Molloy College and credits his higher-education success with having attended the center.
His former teacher saw the student’s return as an opportunity to showcase one of Powell’s greatest gifts: his talent as a drummer.
With Powell on the drums and Carpente on piano — switching to guitar — the two improvised on a jazzy riff that impressed a small group of spectators.
“We are trying to move kids up the developmental ladder,” Carpente said. “Our role is to engage them and to get them into higher levels of thinking.”