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Where Words Fail, Music Speaks

Many years ago now, I was an undergraduate studying music therapy, and my roommates and I decided it would be a great idea to write out famous quotations on construction paper and attach them to a wall – for an inexpensive, inspirational decoration, you know?

Of all the quotations that I read and re-read while living in that house, this one by Hans Christian Andersen sticks out the most:

MusicSpeaksQuote

This quote has become a mantra of sorts for my music therapy work with older adults.  With all of the changes and challenges that can occur in the later part of life, many people struggle to put feelings and thoughts into words at times. This emotional struggle can be made even worse by communication difficulties brought on by dementia or stroke or a traumatic brain injury. Just about every day in my work, I see people struggling to say how they feel or what they need in that moment.

But where words fail, music speaks.

A woman with advanced dementia can no longer say she’s in pain, but she can moan. I mirror her vocalizations and create music to hold her while the medicine kicks in.

Where words fail, music speaks.

A man who lost his speech following a stroke desperately tries to find the words to tell me what song he wants to hear. I try a few lines of a few songs until stumbling upon the one he was seeking. He smiles and beats on his drum with great enthusiasm, delighting in the music he chose for us to share.

Where words fail, music speaks.

A mother with Alzheimer’s disease can no longer carry on a conversation with her daughter. Sometimes all the daughter can do is sit in front of the TV holding her mom’s hand. I sing a tune the mother and I have shared before, and mother and daughter enter the music together. Daughter asks for a special song and just hugs her mom, swaying in time to the music as we sing together.

Where words fail, music speaks.

A family gathers at the death bed of their patriarch, and you could cut the tension with a knife. The man’s wife and children and grandchildren struggle to find the words to reflect their grief. I play a few songs the man and I have shared together, and favorites requested by those gathered in honor of their loved one. The mood in the room shifts.

Where words fail, music speaks.

This is my job, isn’t it? To help people communicate, to express what needs to be expressed, by whatever medium we have at hand. What a privilege it is to give voice to those who have something to say when the words just aren’t there! With all of the techniques and theories and clinical practice and research we have underneath our belts as music therapists, in the end, our work all comes down to one simple idea:

Where words fail, music speaks.

Thank goodness for that.

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