Ben Folds: Music Therapists, Scientists are the ‘Cool Kids’

Musician Ben Folds has been an outspoken supporter of the growing field of music therapy. Folds has regularly used his voice and social media to share information on the benefits, advocate for its recognition, and recently urged the University of North Dakota not to eliminate its music therapy program.
 As a part
of Sound Health In Concert on June 2, Folds will take the stage with neuroscientist Charles Limb for a segment on musical improvisation and the brain. On June 3, Folds joins prominent researcher and music therapist Sheri Robb, where they will talk with patients and their families about their stories and breakthroughs in the field. Earlier this month, Folds was at the Kennedy Center where he was announced as a new Artistic Advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra, and he stopped down to talk about his interest in and advocacy for music therapy.

Q: Why are you interested in taking part in events like Sound Health events on June 2 and 3?

Ben Folds

I was walking through the airport last year and I realized that five of the top 10 books selling were about the brain. People are fascinated by it right now. We want some sort of scientific affirmation for certain things are taking place in our life that we can’t see, and more and more, that involves looking inward at the brain. When you relate the brain with music, it becomes really fascinating for a lot of people. And when you can create interest like that, then you can put a message across.

That’s what I’ve told people like Daniel Levitin or Charles Limb about why I’m excited about these things. Quite honestly, it’s a hot topic. It’s interesting. They are the cool kids right now, not the musicians. None of the top 10 books were about music.

Q: Where were you first exposed to music therapy, and how did that grow into your advocacy for the field?

[When I was playing shows at universities] I was meeting a lot of students who were going in to music therapy. You learn a lot about college kids when you play university show because they are sent as runners [and artist liaisons], and you get to know them and talk to them. I noticed a trend of excitement from younger musicians shifting a little bit from “I’m going to be a millionaire” to “I’m going to go out and help people with music.” I took note of that. I started to realize I had quite a social media following of music therapists.

In 2011 we went down to Atlanta for the American Music Therapy Association conference. I spent the weekend there, took a couple of their classes, talked to them, and hung out. I was really inspired to push it further. I also was beginning some arts advocacy work with Americans for the Arts, and I saw a kind of energy and excitement in the world of music therapy that I felt was useful in advocating overall.

People like and are inspired by the story of music helping someone’s health. If you go and say I need money to play around and experiment with some music, you don’t get the enthusiasm that you get if you can show that their involvement in the arts is actually lowering someone’s perceived pain level, helping an autistic kid or helping a stroke victim in a way that can save health care costs. I learn what I can. Music therapists are a fun bunch, and they make themselves known at my shows, and I enjoy talking to them.

Q: Why does this field need advocacy?

Any time you have anything that’s new or innovative, you’ll have resistance. Education institutions need to start to realize that accrediting music therapy programs is a legitimate thing to do. Insurance companies need to realize it is a legitimate thing to cover. You’d like to save money, have a positive impact on people without drugs, and this provides options.

There’s more science to it than people realize. The reason you have to advocate for it is because anything new gets resistance and some people think it sounds hokey and don’t understand it. There a lot of serious neuroscience going on in the field that often some doctors don’t even know about. So if I’m sitting on a panel with three doctors and a politician, and we’re talking about it, I hope they walk away going, “Well this rock guy is excited about this and he says there’s some science to this and maybe I should learn more.”

Q: Has learning about and advocating for music therapy changed the way you think about music?

It has strengthened my belief that music or art is about communication. Music or sound as communication, predates language. We can see now that the brain lights up like a Christmas tree when it listens to music. So that has strengthened my belief that music is communication, and that’s helpful for me as an artist. I can be interested in something musically innovative or I can be interested in lots of different technical parts of music, but at the end of the day, if I’m not communicating, I’m not doing my job. A music therapist is the same way. If they work with an autistic child and they manage to communicate with them that day, and they hear that child express themselves musically, then they have succeeded in the same way that I did if I play a show and people clapped.