Music, playwright William Congreve once said, can soften rocks or bend a knotted oak tree, where the power of music can soothe the heart and calm the anxious mind.
Music therapist Sarah Boo agrees, saying the right music or the sharing of a favorite song can be good therapy to help people undergoing stress.
Boo, a qualifying registered psychotherapist and a certified music therapist, said music therapy is “essentially using music in a way to help people maintain and improve their mental health and well-being.”
She said she doesn’t teach someone to use an instrument for the most part but uses different kinds of music to connect with clients “to change or shift someone’s mood or helping them to express something or work through complex emotions and figure out what’s going on.”
Boo started her studies by wanting to be a high school music teacher but then in her first year as an undergraduate at Western University, a music therapist came to class and started talking about music therapy.
She thought that this might be an interesting way to use her passion for both helping people and music to help others.
After earning her degree in music education, Boo attended Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo for a Master in Music Therapy, which included psychology courses.
Boo become a certified music therapist in 2019 but she did work with people when she was still in school.
She said some of the therapeutic approaches she uses include a client-centred and humanistic therapy approach to determine a client needs, what music they like, and looking at them as a whole rather than defining and treating them according to textbook diagnoses.
Boo said there are two ways to approach a patient, depending on their condition. In resource-oriented therapy, the therapist a guides a patient — who has all the resources they need — through their journey, while with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), a therapist works with how the client thinks, which in turn affects their feelings and behaviour.
Songwriting intervention involves a patient sharing a favourite song, where the therapist might sing with the client or talk about the lyrics, or if they can change the song so that it becomes more personal to them. The patient could also write a song of their own to express their feelings.
SarahRose Black, a Toronto music therapist who specializes in oncology and palliative care, said music therapy can ease the pain and act as a distraction from what patients are going through.
“I provide bedside music therapy, typically one-on-one with individuals who are admitted to the cancer centre or admitted to Kensington Hospice,” she said.
“When I am with individuals who have what we would call life-limiting prognosis or a terminal prognosis and I offer a number of different things with music,” said Black, who has been working with music therapy for almost 10 years.
Black started at the University of Toronto for her undergrad and earned a Master of Music Education. After that, she took some time away from school but realized that she wanted to go into music therapy because she was interested in people’s mental health.
“I was so interested in their mental health because it came up in our piano lessons, often they would tell me what was going on in their life,” Black said.
She also studied at Wilfrid Laurier University for a master’s in Music Therapy and then worked at Princess Margaret Hospital and Kensington Hospice. He received her PhD in Music Therapy last year at the University of Toronto.
Black said some of the therapeutic approaches she uses involving playing music at a patient’s bedside, using music to manage pain and other symptoms, and working with a patient’s family.
She said she will write songs that could be legacy songs, where patients express themselves or write a song for a loved one. Music is also useful in helping people relax and control breathing, which helps reduce pain, Black said.
But she said a patient’s family also needs support and music helps them remember the good moments that they shared with the patient, and help take them away from the moment to give them a space to laugh and feel happy.
Black said sometimes clients want to play or listen to soft music, but also there are times when they want silence, where they just sit together because the patient might be overwhelmed but their diagnosis.
Boo said there aren’t many music therapists and it’s often not thought of as a possible treatment for people under stress because of a mental illness or a terminal diagnosis.
“People see us and we are playing the guitar, singing songs, making people smile, engaged, and happy and I wish they knew that it’s just wasn’t always fun and just singing songs,” she said. “It’s therapy and there’s deeper work going on.”