Music therapy becoming more common in hospitals

More hospitals, nursing homes and education centres here are using music to help patients and those with special needs

Ms Michelle Low, a music therapist at Singapore General Hospital (SGH), is a human jukebox.

She can play many hits by popular Western music acts such as Lady Gaga, Metallica and Eminem, as well as French songs, religious hymns and Hokkien classics such as Ai Piah Chia Eh Yia (which means one has to go all out to succeed).

"I have quite a huge list of songs in my head. Sometimes I have trouble remembering the lyrics, but I'll sync them up on my iPad," says the 27-year-old, who has a degree in music therapy from the United States.

She is able to play many instruments, including the pipa and drums, and speaks a variety of languages, including Mandarin, Malay, French and Spanish.

When The Sunday Times sat in on one of her sessions at the SGH ward in Bright Vision Hospital, she was strumming a guitar and singing Ai Piah Chia Eh Yia with Madam Phua Beow Eng, a 62-year-old who recently underwent a below-the-knee amputation.

Ms Low sees up to six patients a day and every single treatment is patient-centred and uses patient-preferred music to cater to their needs.

In the case of Madam Phua, the music is not just set to the exercises that are part of her physical therapy, but also helps her deal with pain and lifts her mood.

Ms Low says that music enhances the patients' rehabilitation. "There are different elements in music like rhythm and melody which correlate to movement, speech and language."

Madam Phua looks forward to their daily music sessions. "I feel very happy to see her," she says, pointing to Ms Low.

More hospitals, nursing homes and other institutions here are using music to help patients and those with special needs.

The Association for Music Therapy (Singapore), which has 26 professional and accredited music therapists in its ranks, is 10 years old this year. It will hold its 10th annual Music Therapy Day at library@esplanade on Sept 24.

The association's president, Ms Evelyn Lee, says that there have been more job openings for music therapists in the past one to two years: "We have received a lot more interest and organisations are approaching the association regarding advice on creating new job positions.

"There is a lot more awareness internationally regarding research about music therapy and more new graduates are returning to Singapore."

At Rainbow Centre - a non-profit organisation that runs special education schools and early intervention programme centres for infants, children and youth - music therapists work with the students, their parents and other professionals in their classes and at home.

Ms Loi Wei Ming, the centre's senior music therapist and senior APS (allied professional services) manager, says: "Music is usually a non-threatening medium to most children, thus it can be used as a good point of entry in establishing a relationship with our students.

"Music has also been found to have physiological and psychological effects and can be used as a therapeutic tool to improve the quality of life of the children and their families."

Like at SGH, the music therapists at Rainbow Centre carry out assessments before coming up with an individualised intervention plan for each student.

Ms Loi recalls how a non-verbal student there started to use more words after participating in singalong sessions.

If there are not enough music therapists to go around, there is always technology to help out.

At St Andrew's Nursing Home (Buangkok), some dementia residents have regular sessions where they listen to personalised playlists in a programme called Strike A Note.

It was started earlier this year by Mr Johnson Soh, who previously worked with major music labels Warner Music, MCA Records and American guitar-maker Gibson and is now founder of SanCare Asia, a company which customises personalised music playlists for seniors.

He learnt about how the technique is used in the US, Europe and Australia after his father was diagnosed with dementia.

St Andrew's Nursing Home dementia resident Tan Chik Neo, 76, for example, puts on a pair of headphones and listens, sings and moves along to tunes ranging from hymns like Amazing Grace to Johnny Tillotson's 1961 hit Poetry In Motion from a digital music player.

Mr Soh programmed the music based on her life history and background, according to information gathered from the nurses at the home and her family. Madam Tan uses the music two to three times a week and each session lasts half an hour.

The nursing home's executive director, Ms Winnie Chan, says the music sessions have a positive effect on the residents.

"The nurses who shared the playlist with the residents observed improvements in their behaviour and mood after they go through the music sessions.

"Unlike normal persons with dementia, the residents become calmer, happier and more cooperative with the nurses after listening to the music. There has definitely been a marked improvement in their moods."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 23, 2017, with the headline 'Striking a chord with patients'. Print Edition | Subscribe