The Power of Music Part 1: How music brought life back to Eve

My name is Sara Pun and I am an accredited music therapist and music educator. I have a Master’s degree in music therapy and my main instrument is the piano. I also play clarinet, guitar, Japanese taiko drums, Balinese gender wayang, and sing. My favorite composer is Chopin and his Nocturne in E-flat major. I also have a passion for world music. Music is my life and most importantly, I believe in the power of music.

What is Music Therapy?

The simplest definition of music therapy is: therapy with music.

Imagine a typical therapy session with a counsellor: You’re sitting in a room and talking about your issues with a certified therapist. The therapist uses techniques to help you understand your problems and clarify your feelings. The next step may be to find a solution for your problems. If there is no immediate solution, the therapist can help you accept the situation and find some healthy coping mechanisms to reduce the impact the problems may have on you.

Does this sound familiar?

Now imagine a music therapy session: The room is filled with instruments. Some dialogue may occur in the beginning of the session, but then both therapist and client begin to play music together.

The communication, revelation, and healing lies within the music.

Music holds universal appeal. It captures and maintains our attention. It can express emotions, when words fail. It is creative and focuses on our strengths rather than our weaknesses. It engages the brain in a powerful way, and can re-engage memory and speech pathways. It is enjoyable and motivating.

Music is powerful.

A Gift of Music made by the Canadian Association for Music Therapy.

Who participates in music therapy?

Clients can include people of all ages and backgrounds with varying needs, but also include people who may struggle with speech. These diagnoses can include Autism, Alzheimer’s disease, or a disability. Music is a creative way of expressing oneself and can address physical, mental, and spiritual goals. The Canadian Association for Music Therapy (CAMT) defines music therapy as:

Music therapy is the skillful 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.

The benefits of music therapy

According to the CAMT some benefits include:

  • Increase communication
  • Improve cognition
  • Reduce behaviors (such as anxiety)
  • Improve social skills and interaction
  • Improve emotional regulation
  • Enhance awareness of self and the environment
  • Improve expression both verbally and non-verbally
  • Create a sense of control over life through successful experiences

There has been countless research about the effects of music on health. One of those researchers is Dr. Oliver Sacks, a practicing physician and professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Centre. At the Hearing before the Senate Special Committee on Aging entitled, “Forever Young: Music and Aging”, Dr. Sacks stated:

The power of music is very remarkable […] One sees Parkinsonian patients unable to walk, but able to dance perfectly well or patients almost unable to talk, who are able to sing perfectly well […] I think that music therapy and music therapists are crucial and indispensable in institutions for elderly people and among neurologically disabled patients.

According to the American Association for Music Therapy research has shown music therapy can relieve pain and reduce stress and anxiety. Music has been shown to cause physiological changes, including:

  • Improved respiration
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improved cardiac output
  • Reduced heart rate
  • Relaxed muscle tension

Music has also been shown to:

  • Reduce depression in older adults
  • Maintain or improve a person’s emotional well-being
  • Enhance social and emotional skills and assist in recall and language skills
  • Reduce problem behaviours

Music can have a significant effect on a patient’s perceived effectiveness of treatment, including self-reports of pain reduction, relaxation, and respiration rate. Music has also affected a patient’s perspective on behaviors and self-reported anxiety levels. Lastly, there has also been an effect on a patient’s choice of anesthesia and amount of analgesic medication.

Excerpt from Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory.

The Alive Inside documentary contains a popular YouTube video of Henry, a senior with Alzheimer’s disease. The video demonstrates the power of music.

*Please note in standard music therapy practices, the process would involve a music therapist working with a client using live music.

There are three steps a music therapist would conduct during the session:

  1. Identify goals with or for the client. These goals range from physical, emotional, to social goals, such as increasing the mobility of one’s right arm, to decreasing anxiety, to alleviating loneliness.
  2. Develop a relationship with the client. This is one of the most crucial distinctions between using music and engaging in music therapy. The music therapist bonds with the client and gains rapport with that person. The trusting relationship between therapist and client helps the client achieve their goals.
  3. Cater responses to the client and address the emotional, physical, and spiritual needs of a client. It is the therapist’s job to be supportive of the client at all times and help direct the client to grow and reach their goals.

Eve’s story

As a music therapist, I have worked at the Banff Mineral Springs Hospital in the long-term care unit. The unit cares for many seniors with varying stages of dementia. The seniors who live here have a high need for care since they have a permanent stay at the hospital. One of the seniors I’ve worked with is a woman named Eve (the patient’s name has been changed in order to protect her identity).

A tall woman with brown hair and downcast eyes, Eve suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, along with many other patients at the hospital. This year marks Eve’s twentieth year living in long-term care.

Eve was not always like this. Ten years ago she was active and awake, happily pacing the hallways back and forth. Now, she sits in a wheelchair all day and can’t walk on her own.

Eve’s life is a little more mundane now, as she can’t use her arms or legs, or even talk. She can’t participate in recreation activities with other patients because of her limited mobility. The only way Eve can communicate is through eye contact or by smiling or frowning. As each year passes, her health deteriorates.

Eve is slowly losing contact to the outside world.

I decide to include Eve in the music therapy program at the hospital. She is part of a small group of six members—some are in wheelchairs, others are not—but all of them have Alzheimer’s disease in different stages.

At first, Eve appeared to be the same: distant and still with glassy eyes. My heart reached out to her, and my first interaction was to gently lower myself to her eye level and slowly and warmly sing her name. She showed little response, but I didn’t give up and continued to sing her name emphatically and repeatedly.

After some time, I sensed something shift within her. Suddenly, her expression changed and she broke out into a wide smile that reached ear to ear. Her face completely transformed into one of life and joy. I was deeply touched. This was a rare moment.

It had been years since Eve has responded to anyone, but in this moment, she responded to my voice.

After this incredible breakthrough, I continued to see Eve week after week and she progressed with a few triumphs. She is now able to move her slender, fragile fingers on the drum one at a time, or move her feet forward in short bursts. Although her responses are subtle, it’s clear Eve is present and an active participant in the therapy sessions.

For Eve, music is the motivator and the hook that reaches deep within her and pulls her back into the present moment. Music provides a space where we can communicate and connect to one another.

Music is powerful.

Our relationship began to blossom—the more Eve is exposed to music, the more she participates and is able to respond. One day, I started to improvise a tune on an open vowel. With time and patience, Eve surprised me by humming the faintest sound. Her voice was wispy, but it was there, nonetheless!

One of the great discoveries happened on a rather uneventful workday. I was passing by some of the patients in the hallway when I saw Eve and stopped to say “hello.” She turned to me, her eyes locking into mine and said intently, “h…i…” I was taken aback. Did Eve just say “hi,” or had I simply imagined it?

This was the first word I have ever heard her say since knowing her. What was more impressive was the confident quality in her voice. Eve had found her voice through the power of music!

Even though Eve appeared to have limited outward signs of life and expression, she was still there inside, waiting to emerge and be rediscovered.

I am privileged to have been a witness to Eve’s incredible journey through music.

Music is life-giving, and in Eve’s case music was the gift she needed the most.

A comment about music

Music is an invaluable and therapeutic resource to have in our community, especially in places like senior homes, hospitals, and schools. Music touches many of us on a personal and social level that can address the physical, mental, and spiritual parts of ourselves.

Eve’s story demonstrates that music can revive, invigorate, and sustain life.

Overall, music plays an important and powerful role in our everyday lives and the greater community as a whole.


–Sara Pun, Music Therapist