Music Can Save Lives, Literally: A Texas Teenager Discovers Music Therapy

Jonah Barrow, a Texas teenager who has always enjoyed music, became a perfect candidate for music therapy according to therapists at TIRR Memorial Hermann.

Photo courtesy of Houston Chronicles

The importance of music has never gone unnoticed in human history. In fact, music has always been a part of the telling of a story that many history books just can’t seem to get right. There is a burning desire within humans to create and indulge in those creations, which many argue paints a humanity within ourselves. Music is absolutely important to many people’s lives and essential for them to grow and learn. Many of us can sympathize with the sentiment, whether it’s the song you danced to at your wedding for the first time or the first song you listened to on the radio after a big job promotion, there is no denying the lasting impact music has. 

This is no different from Texas teen Jonah Barrow. Barrow is 18 and an avid lover of music. In fact, he had a band titled The Banned with a few of his friends and played shows in Houston. Barrow was also a multitalented artist and could play the guitar, piano, ukulele, and cello. Although Barrow enjoyed music and hanging out with friends and family, he was diagnosed with clinical depression at age 15. Last year, Barrow suffered from a spinal cord injury, two broken ankles, and a broken elbow resulting from a failed suicide attempt on August 26, 2022. Barrow has since then been working on his mental health with the help of his family and therapists. “I’m in a much, much better headspace than I was,” Barrow said. “I now have a better outlook on life.” Barrow was admitted to a rehabilitation inpatient facility in September and that’s when many of his therapists discovered that Barrow could be the perfect candidate for music therapy on the road to recovery. 

Music provided him with a distraction as well as something to help him get through a lot of the physical and mental pain he was in. When Barrow had tried to stand up for the first time after his incident, not more than a minute had passed before he was ready to sit back down from the immense pain. The team of therapists he was working with at the time decided to play a song, thinking it could possibly help Barrow. He ended up standing for a little over four minutes because of the song. It was amazing for his team of therapists and his family to witness this great achievement. 

Six months after, therapists, family, and Barrow himself have expressed how amazing his achievements are. For Barrow, it was a life-changing decision and is excited to move on to the next part of his life. After all, he has overcome many obstacles and he has decided to really embrace life and how he lives it. Barrow is excited to begin college, as well as perform at ReelMusic 2023. His music therapist Ty Walcott will also be joining in on the performance, which makes it all the more special and exciting. 

Initially, when Barrow started at the rehabilitation center, there was an assessment patients must go through in order for therapists and psychiatrists to evaluate the best possible plan for them. Barrow was asked by his occupational therapist Katie Nedley what he enjoys. Barrows's immediate response was music and Nedley knew that there had to be a way to involve music in his treatment plan. “For the immediate response to be music, it was like, ‘OK, we need to get music involved,’” Nedley said.

There have been many studies on the effects of music therapy and how it can help certain needs. Additionally, there has also been research about the effects music therapy has on your mental and physical state, and the outcomes are generously positive. While music therapy hasn’t been implemented or studied enough to offer concrete evidence of benefits we can measure and study, many patients have been happy with these techniques. 

Music therapy is defined as the clinical use of music to accomplish individualized goals such as reducing stress, improving mood and self-expression. It is an evidence-based therapy well-established in the health community. Music therapy experiences may include listening, singing, playing instruments, or composing music. Musical skills or talents are not required to participate.

Jonah Barrow is seen playing the guitar with his music therapist Ty Walcott. They are rehearsing for their performance. Photo courtesy of Houston Chronicles.

Barrow’s treatment plan was broken up into two parts. Walcott, Nedley, and his physical therapist Jordan Birdsong all worked together to create the perfect and tailored treatment plan for Barrow. What resulted was a carefully thought-out plan that really kept Barrow’s interests in mind. This treatment plan created a big difference in his life. 

During the first part of his therapy, Barrow had to learn how to deal with the pain that came with doing everyday things. For example, sitting up in a bed, standing up, or being moved at all. This was one of the most anguishing parts because the body is learning to adapt to the abrupt changes. After he broke his elbow, there was a loss of function in his right hand. During this first phase, he learned how to gain the function of his right hand again. “Physical therapy can definitely be painful, but I’ve learned you have to knock at the door of pain and go through that door,” Barrow said. “That’s how you are able to grow and get better.”

The first part of his treatment was hard but once music was introduced, Barrow became inspired to continue to recover and have a positive mindset. Walcott played the guitar at his bedside while Barrow sat up and played the drums. There were also a few times when he played his ukulele in bed, which was one of his favorite instruments and one that he knew how to play. 

After three weeks in the rehabilitation center, Barrow returns now to rest for the second part of his recovery treatment plan. This was known as the “intermission” phase because it was between the first and second phases of his recovery. This allowed his body extra healing time, as well as time to spend with his family and friends. Nedley comments that this phase can really motivate the patient. “It helps cue that motivation, a little bit, to be more independent,” she said. “Because they think, ‘I don’t want my mom taking care of me forever.’”

Barrow noted that the first part of his recovery was very difficult. While they introduced music to his treatment plan, he was still depressed about the incident and felt discouraged at times. The time in intermission really helped Barrow become motivated to recover as soon as possible. His family and team of therapists really helped create this reality. 

After his time in the intermission, he was admitted back to the facility for another three weeks and staff immediately recognized a difference. “There’s this tangible moment — and you don’t know when it’s going to happen — when you suddenly see who they were before their injury,” Nedley said. “All of a sudden, you knew when you walked in the room one day: This was Jonah.”

The second phase consisted of learning how to stand and walk again. His physical therapist was working closely with him so that he was able to reach these goals. Barrow also took the time to work on the school work he had missed during his stay at the hospital so that he could stay on track with school. 

Music continued to work for Barrow. At one point, Walcott brought a guitar for him to play and he stood up for fifteen minutes which was longer than any of the other times he had tried to stand. “He was very motivated in sessions without Ty and working hard. But he could walk faster and farther, or stand longer, in sessions where we had music therapy,” Birdsong said. “And it wasn't necessarily a conscious thing.”

Walcott discusses that Barrow’s connection with music isn’t just a one-time thing, but that many people with different types of issues could benefit from music therapy. When the brain is reacting to rhythm and melodies, it’s essentially forcing other parts of the brain to work. “Using a specific song with a specific rhythm is going to help him walk for a specific amount of time, at a specific pace,” she said.

Barrow enjoyed many different artists but his favorites are Billie Elish, Olivia Rodrigo, and Finneas. Walcott and Barrow kept a rapport with the music he enjoyed during this phase. Barrow was released just before Christmas and was able to use a manual wheelchair on his own. He could even navigate himself home with a walker. His physical therapist is hoping that his recovery will continue on an uphill path and more can be done within the next few months as an outpatient. “I think it’s too early to tell, but he has good potential to be able to continue progressing and to walk farther and more independently than he is now,” she said.

Barrow is focusing on graduating high school this year and then attending the LA College of Music. He intends to pursue a degree and career in music production. Barrow is excited to perform at ReelMusic with his music therapist and has been looking forward to a bright future. 

“After going through surgery and being transported to TIRR, I met with many therapists and doctors who wanted me to get better and showed me that it’s possible for the future to be better,” he said. “I’m eternally grateful to them.”

Brandee Robles
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