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Music as medicine

The gentle strum of a guitar and the sound of a voice singing can lift spirits.

Shirley Warren is subdued and sitting in a chair at her Bayside home when music therapist Romy Engelbrecht arrives with a guitar in one hand and a songbook in the other.

Within minutes of Romy beginning to play the requested Top of the World by The Carpenters, Shirley, a former schoolteacher, is smiling and singing along in parts.

By the time Romy sings The Seekers’ Morningtown Ride in her pretty voice, Shirley is rocking and rolling and we are all riding on her wave of laughter.

“She will be bright for the rest of the afternoon,” says her husband Bruce as we leave. “This is very valuable. It helps her to connect and remember, even though the brain tumour has affected her memory like Alzheimer’s does.

“We’ve lived with this for 13 years and the doctors are unable to improve our quality of life. Romy can, and does.”

Romy, a music therapist based in Melbourne, says music is a powerful tool because it is found in every culture and language and anyone can enjoy it.

“Music therapy helps a wide range of people and is very effective in healing. From the baby listening to the mother’s heartbeat in the womb to the person who is dying, music can have a profound effect,” she says.

“Music therapists require thorough training and the profession is based on scientific research. We tailor it to suit each person we are working with.”

Romy, who also has a degree in psychology, was required to complete a master’s degree in music therapy before being registered with the Australian Music Therapy Association. The degree includes 600–800 hours of supervised practice.

The association offers a list of registered music therapists in each state. Specialties include neurologic music therapy, rehabilitation, aged care, palliative care, paediatrics, early childhood, adolescence, mental health, autism, disability and community programs.

Bridgit Hogan, Executive Officer at the Australian Music Therapy Association, says the association, formed in 1975, represents more than 500 registered music therapists. They must adhere to a code of ethics and undergo continued professional development.

“The therapists are highly specialised in advanced practice, theory and research, and they learn to adapt these approaches to make physical and emotional change and foster spiritual wellbeing,” she says.

Bridgit points to case studies, such as a university student living with depression whose life was turned around and a 20-year-old who began writing songs to help him feel like himself again.

Bridgit says alternative practices, such as sound healing workshops and drumming circles, have their place “but the registered music therapists’ rigorous training better equips them to use the power of music safely”.


Words: Harbant Gill Photos: Mark Munro


Music therapy main benefits: Stimulates the whole brain
Uses melody, rhythm, words, harmony, timbre, tempo and dynamics.

Provides social connection
Provides meaningful social interaction, allowing people to participate in shared activities.

Affects emotions
Music offers emotional and memory connections and can deliver messages without words.

Affects the body
Tempo, rhythm and harmonies can be used to create stimulation for some patients. Slowing songs down or playing them more softly can help other participants to relax.

Attains goals
Music therapists can work with speech and occupational therapists to achieve physical goals when there is injury or impaired function. Music can be used to help motivate people to use particular muscles.


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