Eyes on the Brain

A neurobiologist explores the amazing capacity of the brain to rewire itself at any age

The Power of Music Therapy

Music helps when all else fails.

My 89-year-old father lives three miles from me in an Assisted Care home. Like many of the other residents, he can barely walk and is terribly withdrawn. It is a struggle to find ways to bring even a small amount of pleasure into his day. But reading Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks gave me an idea.


Dr. Sacks wrote movingly about the effects of music on his patients, which made me wonder if music could help my dad. Every night, all through my childhood, my father played his violin. When my sister and I were too agitated to sleep, he would come into our bedroom and play us to sleep. During my mother's last decade, my father played for her every night which calmed her Parkinson's tremors and allowed her to drift into slumber. In a sense, my father had been our family's music therapist. Perhaps, I could find a music therapist for my dad.

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After some research, I found Rusty. At our first music therapy session, Rusty came to my father's bedroom, tuned his guitar, and began to sing. I sang along. My father laid on his back on his bed, unmoving. The only time he opened his eyes was to say good-bye at the end of the music session.


"Don't worry," Rusty said to me when he saw my sad face, "It can take some time for people to warm up to me." But I felt hopeless.


A breakthrough came, however, during the second music therapy session. We began with folk songs, but they had no effect on my dad. Since his real love is chamber music, I started to hum the melody to Schubert's Trout Quintet while Rusty improvised on his guitar. My father opened his eyes. Then Rusty moved into a syncopated version of "Ode to Joy." My dad applauded.


With each subsequent music therapy session, my father grew more engaged. During the sixth session, several other residents peeked into my dad's room. "Come in! Come in!" Rusty and I shouted, and the staff rushed to get additional chairs. Soon there were six other elderly residents in the room, singing and clapping. We sang World War II era songs, and two women even got up and danced, holding on to each other (otherwise they would have both fallen over.)


Now, Rusty comes every Friday afternoon. We've moved the music therapy out of my father's bedroom into a common area where we are joined by a dozen other residents. The music transforms them. One woman, for example, is usually so folded into herself that she reminds me of a flat tire. But, when Rusty strummed the tune to "Old Man River," she straightened up, tilted her head back, and gave a performance as moving as any Paul Robeson could have done.

There are days when conversation is too hard for my father. But I know now what to do. We sing.  Even as a younger man, my father knew the lyrics to only one song, "Home on the Range." So, we end our visits by singing "Home on the Range" together. There's an irony in this. My father and I are New Englanders. We've never lived on the range or even seen a wild antelope. But, no matter. The song brings us comfort, and we are both at peace.

Susan R. Barry, Ph.D., is a professor of neurobiology in the Department of Biological Sciences at Mount Holyoke College and the author of Fixing My Gaze (June, 2009).

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