Music Therapists Do It Differently: Supporting Movement

Movement: Music Therapists Do It Differently

In this series, we are exploring how music therapists do live music differently than other musicians, even though it may not be easy to see. This is part ten of a ten-part series. You can find an introduction and links to all ten posts here. Our bodies have a natural tendency to move with music. In fact, classical music concerts are kind of weird for the expectation that people are to sit quietly in assigned seats. The truth is music and dance have almost always gone hand in hand, in cultures around the world. It just feels natural – and really darned good – to move in time with music. You could even say that moving to music is musical all by itself. Still, dancing and moving to music are not that common in the live music situations you might encounter in an eldercare community. Most often, I see folks listening quietly to entertainers, applauding quietly at the end of each song. When it gets a little jazzy, you might spy a few people tapping their toes, or clapping to the music if the performer tells them to. If you’re lucky, some brave soul may stand up and start dancing to the music, and for a brief but brilliant second, you think maybe a dance party is going to get going. On the other hand, if the poor entertainer is performing during a party while people are being served refreshments, her audience will be too busy with conversations and snacking to get into dancing. I’m not sure why this is. Do we expect our elders to be polite and sedate? Are they just tired or hurting to the point that moving doesn’t feel good? Or are our seniors embarrassed to be seen moving the way they do now, rather than how they did decades ago? In any case, I know two things to be true:

  1. Most people should be moving more. Research has demonstrated that regular physical activity can lead to improved mobility and strength,  better sleep, preserved cognitive functioning, decreased depression, and stronger feelings of self-efficacy and personal control. Yet adults over the age of sixty-five are the most sedentary age group.
  2. Moving your body as a form of musical expression feels great. People have always known this on a human level, but now neurological research is starting to show us why movement and music go together so well, too.
This is why I deliberately encourage movement to music when I am doing live music with older adults. Rather than just hoping for people to “get into the music” and move spontaneously, as you might do in an entertainment-oriented program, I view movement as an important form of musical communication and consciously facilitate movement to music. This is one more way that music therapists do live music differently.

#10. Supporting Movement

Sometimes music therapists are very direct in facilitating movement to music with verbal, visual, or tactile cues; and sometimes music therapists focus on reflecting and amplifying the movement that arises spontaneously for people that are doing music with us. Let me share some examples of how this works.

Directing Movement

Imagine Janet’s music therapy group in a memory care community. One song fitting into her “weather” theme is “Over the Rainbow.” Knowing that the wide range of this song makes it difficult for many of her clients to sing, Janet plans to integrate movement with this song. She demonstrates expressive arm movements to match specific lyrics (e.g. reaching one arm over the head to draw a rainbow shape for “somewhere over the rainbow”), then leads the group by singing a cappella and demonstrating the movements visually. When participants have the arm movements learned well, Janet adds a guitar accompaniment, for an even more layered musical creation. Planned movement experiences could work in a one-on-one session, too. For example, maybe Jennifer knows that her hospice patient Maude craves touch. Rather than playing guitar, Jennifer often holds Maude’s hands and sings a cappella. When Maude seems to have the energy, Jennifer says, “will you dance with me?” and sways Maude’s hands gently while singing, “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean.” If Maude resists this movement or feels tense, Jennifer stops dancing with her, but on some days, Maude seems to take over moving to the beat. Jennifer notices that Maude is more likely to make eye contact and smile on these occasions.

Reflecting and Amplifying Spontaneous Movement

Of course, those planned experiences aren’t the only ones that get participants moving to the music. Perhaps Janet is playing “Singin’ in the Rain” as several residents sing along, and she notices that Glenda, who is usually pretty withdrawn, looking up in her direction and kind of waving her fingers to the beat. Janet says, “you’ve got the beat, Glenda!” and taps her guitar in imitation of Glenda’s movement. In this case, Janet is supporting movement in a different way: reflecting and amplifying Glenda’s movement. Again, the same thing can happen in one-on-one sessions, too. Perhaps Jennifer notices Joe nodding his head slightly to her rendition of “Hound Dog.” Jennifer mirrors his rhythm, swaying to the beat while continuing to sing and play guitar. Seeing Joe’s movements get even bigger and more deliberate, Jennifer abruptly mutes her guitar on the line “you never caught a rabbit,” then points at Joe and sings, “and you ain’t no friend of mine.” He smiles broadly and points back at her, while Jennifer strums an appropriately rock-n-roll beat to end the song. Here, Jennifer was amplifying Joe’s movement and showing him where to add an accented movement, too. Now Jennifer and Joe are collaborating in the music on a new, deeper level. Helping music therapy clients move to music means that they can shift from passive listening to more active engagement in the music-making. What’s more, music therapists see participants’ movement as being an essential part of the music itself.

Facilitating movement to music is one more way that music therapists do live music differently.



  1. Debi Kret, MM, MT-BC on February 28, 2014 at 11:33 am

    Hey Rachelle,

    I wanted to thank you for this series. It is so well written! I have been reading so many of our colleagues blogs and they are all helpful, but I have been having a hard time figuring out the goals/subject areas for my blog…Your series helped me to organize my thinking and set up a plan for my blogs – I may not have 10 part series (I doubt I have 10 readers!) but I have a better idea of how to proceed!

    I have so much experience with so many populations that it has been hard to narrow down J

    Have a great weekend!

    Debi Kret, MM, MT-BC

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    • soundscapemusictherapy on February 28, 2014 at 4:09 pm

      Thanks for that feedback, Debi! I’m glad you found it to be helpful.

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