Many people believe that music is a “universal language.” However, just because nearly every culture has music, does not mean that we can all connect with and communicate through its language. For example, though some religions share similar songs and hymns, everyone’s experience with music is different, and each person brings a unique perspective to the music they listen to. This concept of individual music preferences and perspectives is something music therapists like me are cognizant of as we choose music with our clients for sessions.
What is Music Therapy?
According to the American Music Therapy Association, “Music therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professor who has completed an approved music therapy program.” To break this down, music therapists are formally trained individuals who work with their clients on specific goals to improve their quality of life in a variety of ways. I am a board-certified music therapist, and I work with older adults to promote wellness, encourage connection and communication, increase alertness, improve mood, decrease anxiety, promote self-esteem, promote memory recall, and promote self-expression and creativity.
My approach to music therapy is person-centered, which allows for my clients’ goals to include many ways to improve their quality of life, including spirituality. Religion, faith, and spirituality are topics that may arise in music therapy sessions. For example, a music therapist in hospice has the opportunity to create a unique therapeutic relationship with the person and their loved ones, which may include an invitation into their spiritual lives (Krout, 2015, p. 403). Additionally, music, especially when already used in the patient’s denomination, can establish a sense of connection and fill some of their spiritual needs.
Suggestions and Resources for Faith Leaders
My background in music therapy has aided me greatly in my work with older adults. As I live in Oklahoma, many of my residents are Christian, and so I use traditional hymns often in my practice. Of course, that is not to say that only music therapists can use music therapeutically. I have even created a playlist of my most-used Christian songs with this population that you can access here. With this playlist, I offer some suggestions on how to incorporate music into your care with older adults. I also encourage you to create a space designed for older adults in your ministry if that is not something currently in place.
While I selected these songs with my residents in mind, I have found that these songs are popular across many Christian denominations, showing that many people are united by the music they can enjoy together. I have used this playlist many ways, mostly for my Christian Hymns Song Bingo. However, I also use this playlist to create hymn-based devotions. With my residents, I focus on different aspects of the hymn, such as historical context, the Bible verses they come from, the lyrics, and the instrumental music and how that influences the delivery of the hymn. I then conclude with a prayer based on the hymn created by the group or that I wrote ahead of time. You can also create a devotional based on a Lectio Divina and use the hymn as your inspiration.
However you decide to use these songs for your devotions, I would prepare by listening to the song at least two or three times in advance of your session. Even if you know the song well, I encourage you to sit with it the week or so before you lead the devotional. Find out what speaks to you in the song. Listen carefully to the lyrics, then carefully to the music, and look for possible contra indicators for the group. If your group would be interested in the song’s background, I use the book Then Sings My Soul but there are many free resources online. I would also print out the lyrics to the song in a font that is clear and large enough for everyone to read, as well as any Bible verses associated with the song. I also encourage you to explore and ground yourself in your beliefs while recognizing there may be differences that arise when engaging with others, even within the same faith. Finding clarity in your views, discomforts, and biases can offer clarity in those you engage with and strengthen your relationships.
Additional Resources & Further Reading
“AMTA Official Definition of Music Therapy”. American Music Therapy Association. Accessed 13 May, 2022.
Krout, Robert. “Music Therapy for Grief and Loss”. In Music Therapy Handbook, ed. Barbara Wheeler (New York: The Guilford Press, 2015), 401-411.
Walker, Joey & Adamek, Mary. “Music Therapy in Hospice and Palliative Care”. In An Introduction to Music Therapy Theory and Practice, ed. Davis, William; Gfeller, Kate; & Thaut, Michael (Maryland: American Music Therapy Association, Inc., 2008), 343-364.
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