The Soothing Power of Music

Available as an audio article. LISTEN HERE

Insight into the power of music by award-winning author and music therapist Jennifer Buchanan.

This article was written by a guest contributor, and the views, thoughts and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author.

Every month, prior to COVID-19, Donna brought her husband Brian to the community centre for “drumming and singing,” a music therapy program designed specifically for people living with dementia, their loved ones and care partners.

Since the mid-1950s, Certified Music Therapists (MTAs) have facilitated a wide variety of music experiences connected to specific goals, including singing, listening to music, counseling, songwriting and instrument exploration.

Music therapists support persons living with dementia and their care partners by ensuring everyone in a therapy session has an opportunity to feel heard, to connect and experience moments of feeling good. When music therapists use music, one can expect to witness repeating impact from week to week and month to month.

What does music do for our wellness?  

Music has long been known to trigger powerful recollections, but now brain scan studies show us even more. The part of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex sits just behind the forehead and helps us travel down memory lane. 

“What happens is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head,” suggests Petr Janata, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California.  

Photo courtesy of Canva.

Back in the music therapy session the music therapist had carefully placed drums and percussion instruments in the middle of a chair circle. By 10:00 a.m., 10 couples, including Donna and Brian, entered the room and selected their seats. Donna, 58, and Brian, 62, were the youngest members in the group.

Donna was usually vibrant while mingling around the room, making some people laugh while she helped others. On this day, Donna looked unusually tired. After she found two chairs side-by-side, the music therapist walked over to her, pointed to another chair across the circle and said, “Donna, that chair and drum is available. I will sit next to Brian today.”

Though music therapy will not heal Brian of dementia, it can provide regular moments of clarity, autonomy and relief when music is used intentionally, in the right way, at the right time and with a trained practitioner beside. The music therapist will sit close to some members to provide verbal, non-verbal and musical cues of support.

For Donna, the music therapy session will create a space around her worries – even for a brief period of time, allowing her to get as much rest and renewal possible within the hour – and may even give her the potential to see her husband in an old light, less as someone to be cared for and more as the kind partner she always knew.

As the session continued, Donna went through a visible transformation. First, she closed her eyes, and within a few minutes, she was heard drumming above all the others. After 20 minutes, the drumming came to a stop. As she leaned back in her chair with her eyes closed, her face looked relaxed.

Why does music therapy work?

Music is effective and very efficient at fostering positive social interactions by promoting trust and co-operation within a diverse gathering of people. 

Photo courtesy of Canva.

Dr. Alan Harvey put it this way: “In a group context, music-related activities … encourage the formation of bigger social networks, help to define cultural identity and may represent a ‘safe-haven’ in which individuals can interact and share experiences.” 

In his research from 2020, he documented the links between music and the hormone oxytocin and the influence they have on physical and mental well-being, the key roles they play in bonding and feelings of attachment, and their positive impact on social recognition and social memory.

As people’s lives and the world becomes more complex, society continues to seek new ways to feel connected and feel well. The informed music therapist, in the diverse sessions they provide, help to artfully and skillfully build that bridge of connection and wellness.

Each session is designed with several factors in mind, including the client’s physical health, communication abilities, cognitive skills, emotional well-being and interests. After an initial assessment and establishment of mutually-agreed goals, the music therapist will embark on either the creative or receptive process – and in both cases, no previous music experience is necessary. The music therapist will adapt every session to meet the current needs of the individual or group.

“In the creative process, the music therapist works with the client to actively create or produce the music. This may include composing a song, engaging in music or song improvisation or drumming. In the receptive process, the therapist offers music listening experiences, such as using music to facilitate a client or group’s relaxation. Clients or groups may then discuss thoughts, feelings or ideas elicited by that music.”

– Dr. Annie Heidersheit, past president of the World Federation of Music Therapy

How important is the relationship between the music therapist and group members?

The therapeutic relationship is considered one of the strongest predictors of successful therapy. Establishing such a relationship requires training and experience. 

American psychologist Carl Rogers defines a helping relationship as “a relationship in which at least one of the parties has the intent of promoting the growth, development, maturity, improved functioning and improved coping with life of the other.” 

Certified Music Therapists (MTAs) are members of the Canadian Association of Music Therapists, a professional organization that ensures MTAs have all the necessary education, resources and guidelines they require to ensure best care practices and public safety. 

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

After the drumming stopped and there was a brief moment of silence, the music therapist picked up their guitar and strummed a few chords leading into a song both Donna and Brian loved. Brian sang every word, frequently looking the therapist in the eyes with a warm smile of recognition. 

When the song ended, the music therapist asked Brian, “How did the music make you feel today?” As Donna took a deep breath ready to answer for him from across the room, Brian smiled knowingly and said, “Music makes me happy.” 

Finally, Donna released an audible breath of relief.


Learn more about music therapy and the Canadian Association of Music Therapists (CAMT).


Jennifer Buchanan is the founder and visionary architect of JB Music Therapy (JBMT), a music therapy company that has been instrumental in the implementation of hundreds of music therapy programs throughout Canada for 30 years and has been thrice nominated for the Community Impact Award by the Calgary Chamber of Commerce. JBMT employs a diverse team of 18 Certified Music Therapists.

As the author of two award-winning books – Tune In and Wellness Incorporated – she has become a trusted source for media outlets across North America and has been featured in publications such as The Guardian and The Huffington Post. Her latest book, Wellness, Wellplayed: The Power of a Playlist was written for all of us who love to make the biggest impact possible while getting the most out of life – it equips busy, mindful people with tools and supports to engage with music in a deeper way.

As an invited keynote speaker at national and international conventions, Buchanan speaks on music and mental health, music therapy and health entrepreneurship to a wide variety of education, health-care, government, small business and corporate wellness audiences.

Combining her music therapy experience with her MBA, Buchanan is the Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Music Therapists (CAMT). The Canadian music therapy community presented Buchanan with their two most prestigious awards – the Norma Sharpe Award for lifetime achievement and the Frani Award, named after her long-time mentor and friend.