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Pro-Choice and Pro-Voice

May 18 '12

What can you do with Music Therapy?


Marceyology recently asked: “Could you tell me a little bit about what you do? Since it’s an under developed profession as of now, I haven’t been able to get much of an answer on what can be done with it profession wise. I’ve heard that it’s mostly used in group home and inpatient facilities.”

Well, I would like to first state that Music Therapy is NOT an underdeveloped profession. The 20th century profession of music therapy really took off with a group of musicians who traveled to Veterans home following WW1 and WWII. The physical and emotional/mental responses these men had to the music caused doctors and nurses to actually start hiring musicians to assist in the treatment of their physical and mental trauma. But there are references to using music in/as therapy that date back as early as 1790. An excellent history can be found here:   -sorry you will have to copy paste that link, as I apparently am not capable of inserting the link in this type of entry. 

There is plenty of scientific research and recent media coverage about the use of Music Therapy. You just have to take the time to look. The American Music Therapy Association’s (AMTA) website is a great place to start. When you go to and go over to the side bar there is a section of “Quicklinks” that  has a “Facts about Music Therapy” link. click there. You can find the specific definition, quotes about MT, as well as fact sheets on the uses of MT with populations from small children, to prison inmates, to Alzheimer’s and the dying. Music Therapists can work anywhere there is a physical, mental, emotional, spiritual need. I know MTs who work in labor and delivery managing pain during birth. I know MTs who work in the neonatal ICU. I know MTs who have private practice who see individual clients, like children with autism, in their homes. MTs have to develop proficiency on several instruments. All MTs have to pass proficiencies on Guitar, Voice, and Piano. We also frequently use percussion. 

I have personally chosen to focus on older adults/geriatrics. I currently work in a nursing home. At this time I almost exclusively work with individuals with Alzheimer’s or related dementias. My clients range in age from 65 - 102. I also am certified in Neurologic Music Therapy which is a specialized training in the more scientific, quantifiable area of the profession focussing on the neurological responses to music. With that I work with several individuals on gait training (walking) particularly individuals with parkinsons, I work with Physical, Occupational and speech therapists to accomplish physical goals and re-establish speech in individuals with traumatic brain injuries or strokes (do some google searches on Gabrielle Giffords and MT). In my day to day career, though, I am with the residents with dementia. As a Music Therapist I get to be creative, I get to use my passion for music, and I get to see first-hand the impact it can have on someone’s quality of life. I use music to accomplish goals in socialization, physical/mobility, spiritual support, quality of life, and in memory and reminiscence. I can help families reconnect with a loved one who usually doesn’t remember who they are. Examples -  I have a gentleman client in his 80s who doesn’t say a whole lot anymore. He smiles and moves around in his wheelchair but he’s not very social anymore. He has advanced dementia. This gentleman lights up the minute I start playing a song he knows. His favorite is Hank Williams Your Cheatin’ Heart. I start playing, I sing the first line, “Your Cheatin heart will make you weep…” Then I drop out and he will sing the whole rest of the song by himself with very little prompting. It’s not a performance worthy of carnegie hall, there may be some tempo issues, but my job is to support him, so I cheat the tempo and follow him. When the song ends he Smiles and occasionally even tears up with pride in what he has just done. The staff all stop what they are doing to hear him sing. He Smiles gives me a thumbs up and tells me that song “Makes the ticker go” and taps his chest. He engages more socially following his solo. I wish I could better explain the look on his face.   I have another client, a woman, who has dementia and psychosis. She doesn’t make sense most of the time. She doesn’t react to her husband when he comes. He follows her around and tries to talk to her and she rambles and continues wandering the unit. They come to my music groups. For them, I do waltzes and Polkas. They used to go dancing together once a week. When the music starts he extends his hands to her and she grabs on and they polka, or waltz. She makes eye contact, and for a moment he gets his wife back, and she is responding in a normal and appropriate way. One more example: I had a 102 year old resident who was declining and almost to the point of actively dying. She had lost a lot of weight. She had previously been someone who would significantly react to the music therapy groups on the unit. One evening she was sitting up in her wheel chair and she started whimpering. She was in a lot of pain, but wouldn’t open her mouth so the nurse could give her pain meds. The nurse came and got me and asked if there was anything I could do for her. I pulled up a chair, sat right next to her as close as I could get, took her hand, and began to sing some of her favorite hymns. I sang quietly right into her ear. I did it without any instruments but my voice. I took my cues from her. When I started singing, she stopped crying out. I sat next to that woman singing to only her, right into her ear for over an hour. When I stopped she’d whimper and cry. As I sang I gradually slowed my breathing and the tempos of the songs, and switched to humming. She eventually fell asleep and the nurse was able to administer her morphine so they could lay her in bed. She died two days later. Her family had just left, and I went in to check on her. She took her last breath with me in the room. The fact that she trusted me enough to share her final moment with me was a blessing. 

I have probably one of the coolest jobs in the world. I am blessed every day to be able to do something I love that makes an impact. Not everyone can do this job. It can be very difficult. You need a lot of patience. You need to be able to separate your personal life and difficulties from your professional ones. You have to be able to be strong when you want to fall apart because that might be what the family needs, what your patient needs, when they are dying. You have to genuinely care about people. You have to put up with behaviors -screaming, scratching, having things spit or thrown at you. You have to be able to think fast on your feet, because rarely do things go exactly as planned. You have to be able to come up with creative responses and play along even if you have no idea what the patient is talking about. This week I was told by a resident that it has been so nice to visit me here in England, and she is sad she doesn’t get to see her cousins more often but it’s hard when they live so far away.  I put on my best English accent and told her it’s been great to have her visiting. 

Just because many people are not able to define Music Therapy or have not seen it in action doesn’t mean it is underdeveloped or worthless. I have first-hand seen Music Therapy change lives. I am so lucky to be able to do what I do every single day.

Not reproductive rights, but here’s a great explanation of what I’m doing. I’m hoping to become a doula and use music therapy to assist people through labor and delivery, as well as work in hospice. Music can:

  • Foster connections between the birthing team
  • Assist in the transition to parenthood by addressing mental, emotional, and spiritual needs
  • Decrease pain and anxiety and promote relaxation
  • Motivate and give the laboring person something to focus on, like a steady beat for breathing
  • Block any distressing noise from the home or hospital, such as beeping or other laboring people’s sounds.

Before the birth, music therapists can work with pregnant people to create a CD to listen to during labor, practice relaxation methods, discuss the changes ahead, and choose/write songs for their new baby. Music therapists can also work with families and birthing teams to address their emotional, mental, and spiritual needs, and promote unity and cooperation.

Ideally, I would also offer my services as an abortion doula. Many of the needs overlap, and I could address any negative experiences such as grief, guilt, confusion, trauma, or just be there to provide support as described above.