When Talking Is Not Enough

By Maxine Fisher

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"Music can name the unnamable and communicate the unknowable." -Leonard Bernstein

Music therapy, as defined by the Canadian Association for Music Therapy, is the skilful use of music and musical elements by an accredited music therapist to promote, maintain and restore mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health. Music has nonverbal, creative, structural and emotional qualities. These are used in the therapeutic relationship to facilitate contact, interaction, self-awareness, learning, self-expression, communication and personal development.

Humans hear and experience sound for the first time in the womb when they hear the mother’s heartbeat, breath and muffled voice. From the moment of birth, loved ones' voices are recognized through the musicality of their speech.

Most people have been deeply moved by a piece of music during their lives. Songs can be used to create a retrospective road map of those lives. Think back to those songs from childhood, teens, 20s, 30s and onwards; humming a tune can bring back old memories while particular songs are often associated with a person or place. Music is universally accessible to individuals as well as groups of people, and to experience music, one does not have to have formal musical training. Music Therapists bring music to clients to enhance and improve their lives. Music heals, relieves tension and energizes. Singing and playing instruments in a safe environment with others brings joy and a sense of community and allows people to express their feelings. Song lyrics often describe inner thoughts and bring about discussions.

For many years, Music Therapy has been successfully used to assist people who struggle with physical and emotional issues. In one case, music helped a stroke survivor who was unable to speak with words. However, he was able to sing words to familiar songs and even say a few words following the song.

Often, people with dementia (including Alzheimer's) experience moments of joy and clarity when singing familiar songs. Family members, at times, have joined in song and expressed how relieved they were to see their loved ones having a break from confusion and observed how much more present they were. Using familiar songs, Music Therapy can “facilitate reality orientation and stimulate long and short term memory," says Music Therapy Association of British Columbia's Vice-President Kevin Kirkland.

Live music has a different impact than recorded music. Singing a familiar song directly to someone, making eye contact, observing their breathing and matching it with the rhythms in the song, all contribute to bringing that person back into the moment and participating in the basic human interaction of sharing music.

Many people say they cannot sing well or do not have a good voice. One woman, who could only whisper due to an operation on her vocal chords, came to the music group and sang along. Although her voice was barely audible, her joy and enthusiasm while singing was extraordinary. It is not how we sound to others, but how we feel when we sing that brings a song to life. It brings joy to others and us when we join in song.

Some residents always stay in their rooms and do not participate in senior facility events. For these people, a visit to their rooms with the introduction of songs often brings them great joy and inspires them to join the music group, socialize and have fun.

In independent and assisted living, seniors have said they look forward to the music groups. Participants are encouraged to request songs and the members choose from a variety of new and familiar songs. As time goes on, many participants in the group sessions show a strong desire to try instruments they may not have chosen to play during the first few sessions. Learning new skills keeps brains functioning at a higher level. Everyone wants to continue learning and experiencing the best that life can offer.

Music can be shared in many different environments. Home visits allow people to experience the joy of music in their own familiar environments, while being offered opportunities to make choices and express themselves through musical activities specifically designed for them. Some of the seniors I have worked with in their own home have experienced a loss, are dealing with an ongoing illness, have suffered a stroke or have the onset of dementia. Music Therapy sessions offer relief to family and caregivers when they see their loved ones participating in and enjoying music.

Maxine Fisher is accredited by The Canadian Association of Music Therapy and has been working with seniors, families and children for over 16 years.





Birnholz, J.C. & Benacerraf, B. R. (1983). The development of
human fetal hearing. Science, 222, 516-518.

Doidge, Norman. The Brain That Changes Itself. Retrieved August 23, 2009 from http://www.normandoidge.com/normandoidge/MAIN.html

Kirkland, Kevin. Music Therapy in Alzheimer and Dementia Care. Retrieved August 23, 2009 from  http://mtabc.com/page.php?52

Lorch, C. A., Lorch, V., Diefendorf, A.O., & Earl, P.W. (1994). Effect of stimulative and  sedative music on systolic blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate in premature infants.
Journal of Music Therapy, 31(2), 106-118.

Papousek, H. (1996). Musicality in infancy research: biological and cultural origins of early musicality. In I. Deliege and J. Sloboda (Eds.) Musical Beginnings. (pp.37-55). New York: Oxford University Press.

Whitwell, G.E. (1999). The importance of prenatal sound and music. Journal of Prenatal and  Perinatal Psychology, 13(3-4), 255-262.

Maxine Fisher can be reached at 250-686-7582 or by email at




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Showing 1 to 4 of 4 comments.

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Posted by mzaxiszer | December 25, 2010 Report Violation

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