Music Therapy or Happy Hour?
Updated: Sep 30
“Why don’t you come over and play for our happy hour?” Mrs. Bright asked when I phoned to schedule my first music therapy visit for her husband, a hospice patient. As a music therapist for over 30 years, this wasn’t the first time I’ve faced misconceptions about my profession, nor I expected, would it be the last. I took a deep breath and respectfully asked, “Would you be open to a more personal experience, one that could reconnect your family with music you’ve found meaningful over the years?” Much to my surprise, Mrs. Bright invited me to meet her family the next morning (without hesitation or any further mention of happy hour).
Music therapy is an established healthcare profession, grounded in research, with a well-defined scope of practice. Music interventions (e.g. creating, singing, moving to and listening to music) are specifically developed by the music therapist to address the unique needs of each individual. Within the plan of care for hospice patients, for example, therapists use music to reduce fear or anxiety, elevate mood and counteract depression, alleviate perception of pain, ease breathing, facilitate self-expression and life review, and provide support to patients and families during the end of life process, contributing to the goal of a peaceful transition.
When I arrived at Mr. Bright’s home, his daughter (one of four adult children sharing in his care along with their mother) welcomed and introduced me to Mr. Bright. He was seated in his living room recliner, covered with a blanket. He appeared quite frail, weak and fatigued. Every word he spoke seemed to require herculean effort. His eyes widened with interest, however, as I setup my piano keyboard.
From the kitchen came the soft, lovely vocal strains of another daughter, singing “The hills are alive, with the sound of music.” As she sang, I began softly accompanying her from my keyboard. She stepped into the living room to join us, smiling and singing in full voice now. Next she asked if I knew the song, “My Favorite Things,” from The Sound of Music. I nodded affirmatively and immediately transitioned into, “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.” Mr. Bright grinned from ear to ear as his daughter sang, glided and stepped with the waltz rhythm.
One by one each of her siblings joined the session, calling out songs recalled from their childhood, when music served as a binding thread in the tapestry of their family experiences. Between songs they reminisced about important events in their lives, some that had been but distant memories until the music made them fresh once more. At the request of his son and with support from all, Mr. Bright sang a song he used to sing in years gone by, bringing tears to the eyes of his loving children.
Mrs. Bright had been listening from the kitchen while engaged in other tasks. The children encouraged her to join them, asking if she could remember the lyrics and motions to a particular song she taught them when they were very young. Once she began to sing and move, all joined the familiar chorus and motions. They laughed and regaled one another with a flood of happy memories. At the conclusion of the visit, Mrs. Bright walked me to the door, hugged me tightly, and said, “Now I get it…this wasn't entertainment like I expected…this was music therapy for my entire family.”
Yes! That’s exactly what it was, Mrs. Bright.
(Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals)