Picking Up Good Vibrations – using sound and music in therapy

Lisa MillardBeacon Community Services, Beacon Education Services, Beacon Family Services, Family Relationships

A while ago I heard a parent talking about their experience with a therapeutic listening intervention, the Safe and Sound Protocol known as SSP.  They talked about how their son had been behaving in a controlling and aggressive manner and that he was prone to meltdowns. He wasn’t drowning, but he wasn’t feeling safe and he was struggling to pull himself up on to the rocks. They explained how tough life had been for the whole family and that they had been willing to try anything in the hopes it would help.

They met with a therapist who had started using sound and music in sessions with children. During the sessions, they listened to music – particular music listened to in a particular way – with the therapist observing and supporting. Afterwards life at home had begun to get better and the relationships within the family improved as a result of the sessions.

Naturally, I was intrigued, yet skeptical as I remembered the old adage, ‘if something sounds too good to be true, it is’. And it would have applied here, except this wasn’t a well-conceived Spotify playlist thrown hastily together by their new-age therapist. SSP was an auditory intervention created and developed over 40 years by highly esteemed and world-renowned psychiatrist, Dr Stephen Porges.   

Dr Porges’ Polyvagal Theory

Dr Porges’ research into how humans’ nervous systems guide social engagement have been critical to understanding behaviour. Our nervous system works to keep us safe through a drive to survive and a desire to connect. For those who experience anxiety, social communication challenges or who have histories of trauma, their struggles to form strong, social relationships make sense when explored through the lens of Dr Porges’ Polyvagal Theory. You can read more about the Polyvagal Theory here. 

The science behind how it works

Theraplay® practitioners have known the power of music and rhythm for some time, after all parents have sung lullabies to their crying babies since time began. In our sessions we often use this healthy way of interacting as a bridge between the child and their parent. What Polyvagal Theory helps us to understand further is the body’s physiological response to sound and music. The changes in our heart and breathing rate allow us to synchronise with and regulate our central nervous system,  reducing tension and stress.

Filtered music, which is integral to SSP, has been carefully researched and is grounded in the science of how the middle ear muscles, when appropriately exercised, are more able to detect the frequency of the human voice. This ability to detect frequency is crucial to activating our social engagement system and making us feel safe. The music is acoustically modified using a specific algorithm which triggers physiological states of safety and trust.

Rather than a series of learned responses to a situation, our social behaviours are informed by our physiological state and are, therefore, spontaneous. In order for us to feel safe, relaxed and sociable, our bodies have to trust that our brains are working to keep us safe. The Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP) was designed to help people experience this ‘safe state’ where they feel connected and calm. For children we support, we talk about this safe state as somewhere they feel, ‘Ready to connect, ready to play and ready to learn.’ Unless children are supported to experience this state, any therapy or intervention will have very little impact.

A powerful tool for therapists, children, parents, carers and educators

In addition to supporting children to be ready to connect, ready to play and ready to learn, we have also found SSP incredibly impactful in response to the new and increased challenges our families face as a result of Covid-19. The experience of connection with another, while listening enables parents, carers and therapists to observe the child’s physiological cues which evidence their change of state into a place where they feel safe, social and engaged. Not only does SSP benefit the children, but also the parents or carers as they observe both their children’s and their own physiological responses to the stimulus. The gentle and unobtrusive nature of SSP sessions have meant that, in over 20 years of practise, there have never been any adverse effects on children who have experienced trauma.

The Benefits of SSP

Since applying for and receiving funding from Innovate UK to deliver the Safe and Sound Protocol to the children we work with, we have come to think of it like the on-ramp to a motorway. Where the motorway is the longer road of intervention, SSP – like the on-ramp – helps to prepare the child for future work. It supports them to get into the right state, helps them feel safe and comfortable with what’s to come and also to consider what’s behind them in their rear-view mirror. Following the sessions our families tell us their children are calmer, better able to listen, find it easier to make eye contact, are more chatty and actively seek out physical contact.

Inevitably, the motorway will be rife with twists and turns, potholes, construction, dangerous drivers and traffic jams. For children, parents, carers or educators SSP is the safe approach where children can co-regulate themselves, do their safety checks, build their confidence and acclimatise to the demands of the journey ahead.       

If you would like to listen to the SSP podcast where I first heard a parent talking about their experience of SSP click here.

If you would like to know more about SSP, how it’s delivered, it’s use and efficacy click here.  If you are interested in accessing SSP with Beacon Family Services,  please contact us via info@beaconservices.org.uk

Charlotte Jenkins is a Director of Beacon Family Services. She is a qualified Social Worker, a certified Theraplay Practitioner and is currently in the process of becoming a certified DDP Practitioner.