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What You Might Not Know About Music Therapy

By: Chrissy Pearson, BMT, MTA

It is Wednesday afternoon and I find Larry* sitting in his wheelchair in the hallway with his eyes closed. He is well-dressed and his hair has been brushed “just how” his wife likes it. I wheel him into his room and get my guitar out along with some small percussion instruments. I touch his arm and say “Hello, Larry.” His face remains tight and his eyes stay closed. I begin to sing an improvised song using phrases such as “Hello Larry, it’s nice to see you” and “It’s time for some music.” As I repeat this simple, improvised melody and continue to repeat the phrases, he opens his eyes and looks toward me. His once stiffened face relaxes and he smiles. When he hears his name he laughs softly.

Larry has advanced dementia. However, after seeing him weekly for three months, in this moment I am sure that my presence and the music feel familiar to him.

Music therapists work in many contexts – with large communities, small groups of people with similar needs, families and/or couples, and one-on-one with individual people. At Baycrest, you may see one of us working in one of the Day Centres with a large group of people, or on a hospital unit with a small group in the activity area. Though group sessions are very visible at Baycrest, what often goes unnoticed is the music therapy that happens with clients one-on-one, often in their rooms.

So why are one-on-one sessions worth our attention? Why can’t everyone benefit from groups?

For some, it is about choice. Perhaps groups make them anxious. For others, a group setting might not be appropriate to engage in if they are easily agitated or are over-stimulated. Finally, some people do not fully benefit from a group experience. For people like Larry, the group environment does not provide the close, interactive, individualized care that reaches him, engages him and provides therapeutic impact.

Human connection is, perhaps, the most important therapeutic factor for a person with advanced dementia; or for anyone experiencing significant distress or isolation. When focused on the individual – whether they are sleeping, agitated, wandering, or alone in their room coping with depression – a music therapist can often successfully address his or her specific needs with specialized techniques. The success of music therapy occurs, in part, because the one-on-one therapeutic context facilitates meaningful connection, fosters trust and provides a safe environment.

Anne*, a palliative care patient, expressed to her care team that she would prefer to remain in her room in bed despite the fact that she was able to move around without pain. Having refused group activities, a referral was made for one-on-one bedside music therapy sessions. During our sessions, Anne and I were able to identify her depression and fear of dying as the focus of our work. Together, we used songwriting to express her fears and her hopes for the people she would be leaving behind.Through improvising music together, she was able to express her anger and regrets. We also sang songs that were meaningful for her and brought back memories and stories from her past.

Most people assume music therapy in palliative care means relaxing, calm music. Not so. For Anne, it was disco and rock and roll!

People like Anne and Larry, for very different reasons, require and benefit from one-on-one music therapy sessions. As a community of Baycrest care providers, both Anne’s and Larry’s stories remind us of the value of human contact and one-on-one attention.

*names have been changed

Chrissy Pearson is a music therapist at Baycrest with the Department of Culture & Arts. If you’d like to learn more about the value of music therapy with Baycrest patients and residents, please contact Chrissy at

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