Music for the Burned Soul

By Rebecca Chen, MusicWorx Intern

2020 has been a year of non-stop tragedies. Each month, we wait to hear what new catastrophic event this year will bring. August 2020, has presented itself as the month of natural disasters across the entire United States. At around 4 AM on August 16, a series of thunder and lightning storms hit the San Francisco Bay Area. The dry storm led to numerous brush fires that eventually merged into three massive wildfires. The LNU Lightning Fires (Napa County), CZU Lightning Fire (Santa Cruz County), and SCU Lightning Fire (Alameda County) combined, and burned over 800,000 acres ( by September 2020). By comparison, Sonoma County had one of the deadliest wildfires in all of California’s history. Over 153,000 acres were burned and over 52,000 residents were displaced and evacuated. As I continue editing this article, more fires have burned along the entire west coast.

I identify as a Bay Area resident first and a Californian second. When I heard the news of the fires destroying some of my favorite parks growing up and smoke affecting those who are supposedly safe from the fires, my heart broke. I immediately reached out to my family, friends, colleagues, and old co-workers and offered anything I could. I felt helpless.

We often think of disaster relief as giving food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare to victims. But when those needs are met, what happens to their mental well-being? Music therapy can be involved in disaster relief! Many New York music therapists provided services to the community that was affected by the 9/11 attacks. In 2008, music therapists supported a shelter for refugees displaced by the Sichuan earthquake. In response to the 2009 Australian brushfires, the community came together with a music therapy approach to encourage each other. In 2011, music therapists supported a relief center that served victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake, which also resulted in a tsunami and a nuclear accident. After doing some more research, I found that these are the ways that music therapy can support disaster relief:

  1. Support displaced victims

  2. Support injured victims

  3. Support first responders

1. Support Displaced Survivors

When victims of disasters are evacuated, they are brought to shelters formed at local community centers like high schools, leisure centers, university halls of residence, places of worship, sports venues, and private rentals (Bashawri, et al. 2014). These shelters may take the form of one large general area or small individual tents for groups. Immediately, survivors living in these conditions lose their sense of identity, especially in these temporary shelters. Survivors of disasters may develop PTSD-like symptoms and will take years to “heal.” If you choose to volunteer and support survivors at shelters, make sure you provide a listening ear and try not to understand their situation. Trauma and grief are so complex and each individual will deal with it differently. Here are some goals to keep in mind during your service at the shelter as a music volunteer:

  • Healthy coping with their emotions and trauma
  • Let survivors express their needs and emotions appropriately
  • Ensure that survivors feel safe
  • Build a community through socialization
  • Provide a safe space for survivors
  • Using music to reach multiple survivors at a time

2. Support Injured Survivors

Survivors who have injuries related to disasters need a different level of support from music therapists. On top of a lack of essentials, survivors endure physical pain and need medical treatment. In the hospital, music therapists are utilized as part of the treatment team for many different medical units treating disparate medical conditions. Music therapy is helpful for these disaster-related injuries:

  • Burns: music can help with distracting pain during wound changing ( Cella et al. 1988)
  • Respiratory: music can help entrain one’s breathing to create a deeper, more even breaths (Chlan 1998)
  • Surgery: music can lower anxiety levels going into, before, and after surgery to promote higher success rates and recovery time in the hospital (Good et al. 2005)
  • ICU: different interventions with music can help patients feel less isolated and can increase levels of serotonin to shorten recovery time (Ahmad, Brophy, Grant & Brandstetter 1999)

3. Support First Responders

Firefighters and EMT’s are our front-line heroes responding to natural disasters. Fire fighters come from all over the country to help and put their lives on the line in order to save our homes and towns. Through my research, I found that in order to fight wildfires, you need a different kind of training than a city fire fighter. In a field where you’re constantly told to “fight, fight, fight”, the mentality can take a toll on your mental well-being. Many first responders feel they need to put on a “tough face” in order to save others, but in reality that means suppressing any emotions, anxiety, feelings that one might have about saving someone else. Supporting first responders through music therapy can create room for safe, healthy emotional expression. In one Korean study, they found that music therapy helped decrease PTS symptoms for first responders in about four weeks. Music therapy can help focus on healthy expression and release.

What can you do for yourself?

If you are directly or indirectly affected by the fires, here are a few music-related activities you can do for yourself:

  • Listen to some of your favorite music alone, or with others. Talk or write about some memories or thoughts you have while listening to the music.
  • If you are able to, make music with those around you. Sing. Drum. Play. Keep making music until you feel your mood take a positive turn.
  • Write in your journal. Create song lyrics related to how you’re feeling and write a melody to go along to your lyrics. Record your song so you can listen to it at a later time or share it with others.

Who can I reach out to?

Many programs supporting survivors and shelters are accepting volunteers! Reach out to your local charity groups to see what you can do to help people who are affected by the fires. Here are a few charity groups that are helping with these natural disasters:

More Information:

  • What do music therapists need to know before the disaster strikes? By Masako Otera
  • An overview of the design of disaster relief shelters By Abdulrahman Bashawri, Stephen Garrity, and Krisen Moodley
  • A music therapy educator and undergraduate students’ perceptions of their music project’s relevance for Sichuan earthquake… By Tian Gao, et. al
  • Medical music therapy for adults in hospital settings By Deanna Hanson-Abromeit and Cynthia Colwell
  • Benefit of music therapy for our intensive care unit (ICU) patients By H. Ahman, K. Brophy, G.R. Grant, & R. D. Brandstetter
  • Relaxation and music reduce pain following intestinal surgery By M. Good, G. C. Anderson, S. Ahn, X. Cong, and M. Stanton-Hicks
  • Effectiveness of music therapy intervention on relaxation and anxiety for patients receiving ventilator assistance By L. Chlan
  • Stress and coping in relatives of burn patients By D.F Cella, s. W. Perry, S. Kulchycky, and C. Goodwin


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