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Dr. Linda Ashar, J.D.

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By Linda C. Ashar, J.D.Faculty Member, Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business and
Dr. Ronald Johnson, Faculty Member, Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business

The therapeutic power of music cannot be overstated. In this episode, APU’s Professor Linda Ashar talks to Dr. Ronald Johnson about the healing and restorative power of music therapy. Learn more about musical therapy intervention and how music can be integrated into the workplace to help creativity, increase productivity, improve mental health, reduce stress and anxiety and much more.

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Read the Transcript:

Linda Ashar: Hello everyone, this is Linda Ashar. Welcome to our podcast. Today, it is my pleasure to welcome Dr. Ron Johnson. He is a professor in the Wallace E. Boston School of Business, at American Public University. He’s been with us since 2008.

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Ron is an accomplished scholar. He has international recognition through papers and publications. He is a world traveler and is here to share his expertise with us on music therapy in the workplace. Ron, thank you for joining us.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Oh, thank you, Linda, for the nice introduction. It’s a pleasure to be here with you.

Linda Ashar: To begin with, let’s talk about what is music therapy.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Music therapy is defined by many different scholars and organizations. The American Music Therapy Association, they see music therapy as something for people to use in order to receive some positive healing effects. These are clinically directed programs. When you are looking at musical therapy, you’re looking at a clinical- and evidence-based use of music to accomplish a variety of goals for the individual. These are done through a person who is accredited in music therapy.

Linda Ashar: It’s a whole field of study.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: It truly is. There are many universities that offer bachelor’s and graduate degrees in this field. To be credentialed, you would need this type of degree. Yes, it’s definitely a field and it is expanding. There are more and more programs out there in academia, to train people, to become music therapists.

Linda Ashar: What are some conditions or needs of people that music therapy helps or would be used for?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Oh, the list is endless. We can look at first responders, we can look at military personnel, people who have suffered trauma, people who have been affected by PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome). There’s a huge portion of the population in society that could definitely be benefited from music therapy.

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To me, as an observer of organizations, as an observer of individuals within society, and mainly as a lover of music, I think that we need to take a step back and look at the history of music in our society. We found music being referenced in the Bible. There’s reference to music in various other historical documents. But don’t take my word for it. Don’t take the word of the music scholars. How about the people who are making the music and the people who are sharing their gift with us?

For instance, Elton John, a performer who I’ve seen numerous times in concert. He’s long been a proponent of the healing power and restorative power of music. He’s been quoted as saying, “Music has healing power.”

You’ve probably heard of Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, developed the theory of personality. He stated that music should be an essential part of every analysis. Then, more recently, Oliver Sacks, who’s a bestselling author and he’s a professor of neurology at the New York University of Medicine, he said, “Music can lift us out of depression. It can move us to tears. It’s a remedy. It’s a tonic. But for many neurological patients, music is even more. It can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For these patients of Dr. Sacks’ music is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.” This statement resonates very strongly for me because I just can’t imagine a day without music.

Linda Ashar: Are there particular types of music that are used in therapy, more than others? Or do therapists test people to see what types of music work individually with them?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: That’s a very good question. Music therapists, by and large, they state that the best type of music, again, it’s all dependent on the individual, as you say, is something that is not really a fast tempo, something that is in the range of 60 to 70 beats, which is what the average heart rate is.

It’s music that does not have words to it. If there are any vocals to it, then it may be something that is just like a “la la la.” It’s not actual vocals.

Finally, the best thing about using music therapy is that there are so many different styles of music that you can use. One can look at the classical music from the classical composers. We have a movement of mindfulness in organizations and with individuals. In mindfulness practices, they often recommend, and use, ambient music. Ambient music was created by a musician by the name of Brian Eno. It’s a funny story, but he was going through airports in Europe. He was traveling a lot. For those of you who can remember Muzak, elevator music.

Linda Ashar: Oh yeah.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: It was just driving him crazy. He thought, “There has to be something better.” As a composer and as a musician, he composed a style of music, which he called ambient music. The first recording that he did was called “Music for Airports.” He started the ambient music revolution, I call it, in the 1970s.

Yes, there are many different types of music. There’s also types of white noise. If you want to listen to that, or if you just want to listen to piano or flute, something, but yes, there’s many different types of music that can be used.

Linda Ashar: You just triggered a memory for me when I was in law school. This is going back a few years, I’m not going to admit how many. In the library they had these little white noise machines interspersed along the long tables that they had in the library and also in the individual carrels. They had these white noise machines throughout the library. You could use them or not. If you wanted to make use of it, you’d switch it on, or you didn’t. Everybody that I knew wanted to sit by the white noise machine because it was soothing; it masked distractions, helped concentration.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: When music is used in a therapeutic manner, it’s driven a lot by the musical preferences of the patient. Overall, there’s a lot of evidence that states that live music, if possible, has been demonstrated to have an even more positive effect on patients than recorded music.

That just reminds me of an interesting conversation I had, just this past weekend. I was going to a concert and before the show began, I started talking to a doctor. He was a surgeon. Now, he’s doing IT medical work, but he’s a surgeon. He said there were certain times with certain situations in surgery where right outside the OR, the operating room, they would have live musicians. People before and after would be serenaded by a cellist or light piano music. He said that positive results to this were amazing, because it was just something that was different, but it was very soothing to the patients in a stressful environment.

Linda Ashar: Can you imagine seeing that on your hospital bill: A line item for the pianist at the operating room?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Yeah. Especially if it’s one of the popular classical musicians.

Linda Ashar: I don’t mean to make light of it, I just flashed on that being there. That would probably be one of the most worthwhile things for me to pay for if it showed up on my hospital bill. I had not heard of that, but it doesn’t surprise me having heard it. It’s an excellent idea. I wonder if that was driven by the surgeon himself requesting it, or if it was a study being done in the hospital?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: The doctor that I spoke with said that this was something that he implemented. He was head of the surgery department.

Linda Ashar: Excellent.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: He was able to implement that. It was not year round, but it was something that was used to great effect.

Linda Ashar: Now, that’s a workplace example, because a hospital is also a workplace. That’s being implemented for primarily the patient benefit, which is, of course, very important. I’d like to think a little bit about how it’s being used with employers and employees. I have read and heard that music therapy, as a workplace tool, is becoming more prevalent. What can you tell us about that?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Yeah. That’s a very good point, Linda. Music at work is not a new thing. We can look back to the 1920s for the Hawthorne experiments, where changing a condition of a factory had a positive, or sometimes a negative, effect on productivity.

The same thing as with music. Music has been in factories in organizations since the 1940s. There was a study done in the UK during the war, where productivity was very important in industry. They found that putting upbeat music really helped increase productivity, so they kept that on. They kept the music playing while they were constructing all of their weapons and armaments.

Music can also, in an organization, in a workplace, it can really help creativity. It can help people have ideas. It can help people to become more productive. It can help improve people’s mental health. It reduces the stress, the anxiety and depression, especially during these pandemic times that we’re either working alone, we don’t have the interaction with our coworkers. So, having music in your home office is really important. I have classical music playing all day while I’m working. That is probably one of the best types of music to listen to.

Linda Ashar: Explain a little further what you mean by classical music, because I have a feeling that might mean different things to different people.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Well, it’s definitely not classical rock. It’s not anything with vocals. I’m thinking music from the 1700, 1800 period orchestra music, orchestral music. Not opera, because opera has a lot of vocals in it, usually, in different languages. That could get confusing.

Anything that has a nice, soothing sound, something that is calming, something that is, again, instrumental. Rather than maybe just saying classical music, we can then define the “best music” and again, its individual preference, to be something that’s instrumental with a soothing beat and something that can help to make the workplace a bit more soothing.

Linda Ashar: You’re talking about Beethoven?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Of course.

Linda Ashar: Okay. That’s one. Brahms.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Bach.

Linda Ashar: Bach.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Yeah.

Linda Ashar: Bach would be interesting because that is a composer that has a more cadence beat to many of his compositions.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Yes. There have been studies done with Bach’s music about how it can cognitively influence you in a positive way. Again, as I said earlier, this type of music can really aid in creativity. It can aid in problem solving. It can help you be more productive.

Linda Ashar: Have the experts, if you know, done any opining or studies as to this type of music, you mentioned soothing, aiding in production and creativity, on the one hand, but on the other hand, ambient music and soothing music is also used as an aid for people to go to sleep. Now, that seems like two contradictions.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Well, yeah, it is. The music therapy can be used for improving your sleep practices. It’s also used to reduce pain. Just think of if you’re listening to something, music-wise, but you may be undergoing, case in point, I’ve been going to the dentist a couple of times. Dentist is not a fun place to be; having that calming music is something that really lessens the stress. There’s many other uses, therapeutically, for music, even for TBI (traumatic brain injuries), music can help improve motor functions. There’s even research now that shows that listening to music can help lessen the effects of dementia. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Linda Ashar: Oh, yes.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Yeah.

Linda Ashar: Have they done studies to show different parts of the brain responding to music, versus responding to other stimuli?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: They have. That’s a very good question. That’s a little bit above my level of study, because then you’re starting to get into cognitive behavioral therapy and areas like that. For sure, when we look at neuroscience and neurolinguistics, then definitely the music therapy can help people reprogram. They can help people who are having depression. Sometimes if the music therapy is combined with these different therapies, you really have a good base to help improve a person’s, not only mental health, but their physical health.

Linda Ashar: It’s interesting. Welcome back, everyone. You were just listening to an example of ambient music. This is an example from Pixabay called “Rain” by Slicebeats. I’m speaking today with Dr. Ron Johnson about music therapy, which uses ambient music as one example of therapy music. Ron, to continue our discussion, how are employers using music therapy?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: That’s an area that I wish there could be a little more unanimity on the processes that we have in organizations. You’ll find in many office settings, that music is allowed, but you would have to have headphones on. When you’re wearing headphones and listening to music, it kind of cuts you off from the rest of your environment.

For certain types of tasks, I could imagine accounting or things that you really have to focus on what you’re doing, headphones, music, great combination. But if you want to be able to interact with others, maybe it would be good for organizations to just have some of the calming music, some ambient music, being played throughout the workplace. Again, there’s no standard for this, at this time.

Linda Ashar: One of the courses that I’m involved in at the university is crisis management. One of the things that we talk about from a management perspective is what employers can do post-crisis management for … Well, let me give you an example.

A workplace violence situation can be very traumatic for employees, obviously. The post-traumatic stress of that is a lingering issue for that workplace, because the violence has occurred there; could be a shooting, or it could be some other type of violent outbreak. How might employers, dealing with that type of situation, use music therapy for their workplace as a management technique to help employees?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: That’s a very good question. For an organization, depending on its size, I would recommend bringing in a music therapy practitioner.

Linda Ashar: Okay. That’s good.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Yeah. That would be my first suggestion. Just as we have organizational consultants, we have music therapy consultants. You don’t want somebody who says, “Oh yeah. I DJ on the weekend,” choosing the music that you’re going to be playing for everybody in your organization. A certain degree of care needs to take place before you go down that path.

One way, maybe, is to just go ahead and have a policy where people can bring in their own music and listen to it on headphones, but not have anything in the organization. Then just talk to people; talk to your employees. What type of music would you like to hear? How does this sound? Does this make you more or less stressful in your work environment? To use music as a healing activity after a traumatic experience, like you just mentioned, it can’t be overstated.

If we look at some of the major traumatic experiences within countries, such as war or 9/11, music played a very integral part to the healing process. I can remember, after 9/11, one of the first things that happened was there was a huge concert at Madison Square Garden for first responders and for people who were at Ground Zero, to just get in and hear music and celebrate and have that connection just with one another and with the actual music that was being played. There’s been countless studies done on the role of musical therapy intervention.

Linda Ashar: That’s where my mind was going on this as a management intervention technique. I like that word intervention. Allowing people to play music is one level, but another level would be, it seems to me, having employees together as a group in some type of session, not necessarily interactive, although that’s one type of therapy, group discussions and so forth. From a music standpoint to just have a relaxation session as a group with music could be a healing experience, it seems to me.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: What the music therapy can also help to promote is open communication. People are a little bit more relaxed. They have less muscular tension. They’re just feeling a little bit better. If you have something that is relaxing people, that can really set the stage for open communication. You’ll probably see the communication interactions among your employees as increasing, due to the music that is being played.

Linda Ashar: Do you anticipate that there will be employers that would be resistant to using music therapy as too touchy-feely or too, I don’t know, not useful.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: I think in any situation within our organizations where we are looking at starting something new, you’re going to have resistance. One area that I haven’t been able to find any research on, but it’s interesting to me, would be the attitudes of the different generations as to hearing music in the workplace. Maybe the younger generational cohort is more apt to enjoy music, maybe they’re not. That would be a good study though, I think.

Linda Ashar: Yeah. I was thinking along the same line, that probably more studies are on the horizon and should be to help educate. That leads me to another thing. Isn’t this something we could be teaching at the university level, on the business side?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Yeah, definitely. Well, I’ll give you an example. When I begin a graduate course, I always add a link to some type of music that is inspirational to me. Something to let the person know, “Okay. We’ve watched his video introduction. We’ve read about all of his accomplishments. We see the published works, but who is Ron Johnson as a person?”

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Showing the students the types of music that I listen to, and I have very eclectic taste when it comes to music, I think that it also not only shows students who I am, but it can also trigger emotional responses in the listener, in the students. This is a way that I can do a little music therapy with my students before starting a class.

I just think that showing that, shows me as a person and kind of takes the edge off, the anxiety off, of starting a new class, because students are very nervous when they come into the classroom for the first time. They don’t know their classmates by and large, they don’t know their instructor. Having a little music, it’s almost like an icebreaker. It does lessen the anxiety of starting a new class. Professors, we get nervous too, before the beginning of the class.

Linda Ashar: Sure. I think it’s an excellent idea, Ron. Could also ask students to share their favorite music.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Yeah. I don’t even have to ask them. They do.

Linda Ashar: Do you think music therapy is a management technique in say a crisis management course or some other way, has any merit as something to think ahead for curriculum?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: I do. I think that if you are responding, as a crisis management professional, to a situation, the type of music that is going to be played, if any, is going to be something that is going to have a calming effect on the situation, on the individuals who are in the response mode and even the victims. I would think that if you have a holding area for people who have been through a traumatic event, playing some ambient music, playing something in the background, could have a calming effect on both the first responders and for the people who were the victims of the events.

Certainly, crisis management toolbox should include some kind of music therapy. Again, that would be up to the actual crisis manager. There are certain situations where music would not be appropriate, but I think that it could be worked into a response for a crisis, yes.

Linda Ashar: Yeah. As a component of a post-crisis plan. I think it must be emphasized that this is something you would do with an expert advisor as to how it would be best applied as an intervention technique.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Yes.

Linda Ashar: Which leads me to another question. How do you find a music therapist for the workplace?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: I would use this tool that is out there, it’s called Google. I would do a Google search for music therapists. The thing is, you have to remember, you don’t just go in there blind. You have to look before you start searching for someone. You have to have an understanding of the different criteria that you are going to be needing in your crisis management plan or in your organizational plan.

You just don’t go in and say, “Okay. You were the first person whose name came up, give me some music that I can use for therapy purposes.” No. It has to be something that is specific to your organization, specific to your employees.

As I said earlier, when you have different generations in the workforce, if you’re going to play music from the 1940s, Benny Goodman swing music, they might have the opposite effect. Instead of calming, it could be very aggravating, so you do need to be careful with the choice of music. That’s why something without lyrics, something with a smooth and steady beat, is what is preferable.

Linda Ashar: Well, I think it’s like anything else. You need to assess what it is you want to use it for. What is your goal? What do you want to accomplish with your workplace? Do you have employees that don’t communicate? Would use of music improve that? Do you have employees that aren’t getting along well and you can’t put your finger on really what’s going on with that? Maybe music therapy, for want of using a better term, we’ll just call it music therapy for use of music, maybe introduction of music in some more organized way in the workplace would assist that?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Agree.

Linda Ashar: I think you want to know what your questions are before you just go find somebody to say, “Hey, I’d like to use some music in my workplace.”

Dr. Ronald Johnson: No. That’s exactly right. You have to have a clear idea. Again, a music therapist or a specialist can help you form those questions in that strategy. The thing to remember also, Linda, is that there are plenty of residual effects to having the music in your workplace.

It really can strengthen interpersonal skills. If somebody says, “Hey, I like that music. I remember that one,” there’s something sharing right there through the use of music. I think it can also help with resiliency. It can help individuals with their coping skills. How many people have a bad day at work? Sometimes just hearing a little bit music can increase an individual’s self-awareness of what’s going on and improve communication. It can definitely increase, in a positive way, people’s moods.

Linda Ashar: Well, another issue that’s very much on the forefront right now is employee retention. Seems to me it might have a positive effect for that as well.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Yes, absolutely. Again, you have to be careful before implementing something like this. That’s why I think an approach where you have a policy that states, yes, if you have music that you want to play, headphones are definitely encouraged. However, the next step could then be to survey your employees and find out what do they want?

Linda Ashar: Are you aware of any companies that do this in an organized way?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Yes. The United States military, also first responder units, they’ve been using music therapy forever, for decades now. Because as you stated earlier, that traumatic experiences, when you’re put through something like that, one of the best ways to help that person is through music, whether that would be live music, as I mentioned in the hospital example, or recorded music. That really is something that is therapeutic. The therapeutic power of music cannot be overstated.

Linda Ashar: Military, that’s fascinating. Can you give us an example of what the military does?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Well, look at the military, the history of music. As an army was going into battle, who was at the front line? Those were the trumpeters, those were the people that were blowing the music to charge and engage the enemy. Music is also used to get the troops up in the morning, Reveille. Music is also used in the military, at the end of the day, to this day, military organizations still play Taps.

Linda Ashar: Oh, yeah.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: That signifies that’s the end of the duty day. That gives a calming effect. That lets the person know, “Okay, my day is done. Taps are being played. Let’s finish out the day.” Whereas the opposite, Reveille, it’s a bit livelier and it gets you going, it gets you up. It gets you into the formation and prepared to do your job. The military has been using music forever. To this day, it’s still in effect.

Linda Ashar: It energizes, it calms, it mentally organizes.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Helps create focus.

Linda Ashar: It promotes creativity. It’s very much a part of who we are, is what you’re saying.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Yeah. When people experience a traumatic effect, even to the brain, music is one of the things that can really help with the neurological connections within the brain, where you may not be able to communicate verbally a hundred percent. Music is something that is soothing and calming and works in the brain in a very positive way.

Linda Ashar: Well, this has been a fascinating discussion. I love music. I think, probably most people do.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: I don’t trust a person if they say they don’t like music, flat out.

Linda Ashar: We need to wrap up. I see our time is running here, for the podcast, Ron. Closing thoughts for our audience?

Dr. Ronald Johnson: Well, thank you for the opportunity to talk about something that I’m very passionate about, and that is music and how it can be used as music therapy and within our organizations. I think that the research is continuing, I think that there are many avenues to explore. If I was giving advice to an organization, I would definitely ask them to consider putting music into their organizational processes.

Linda Ashar: Excellent. Oh, I can’t thank you enough. This has been very enjoyable. I wish you all the best.

Dr. Ronald Johnson: And you. Thank you for having me.

Linda Ashar: We’ve been speaking today with Dr. Ron Johnson about music therapy and its applications for the workplace. I appreciate everyone listening, and I look forward to seeing you again for future podcasts. I leave you with another example of therapeutic music also from Pixabay, this is “Emotional and Inspiring Background Music” by OB-Lix.