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Sharp Health News

The music of our lives (video)

April 26, 2017

Deb Cowan is a board-certified music therapist, and Sharp HospiceCare’s sole music therapist. She began providing music therapy for patients and their families in 2002. In addition to singing, she plays various instruments, including keyboard, flute and guitar. Sharp Health News recently spoke with Deb about her work in music therapy.

How did you become interested in music therapy?
When I was 39, I was diagnosed with cancer, which greatly changed my perspective on life. I dusted off my old musical instruments from childhood, went back to school for a master’s degree in music therapy, completed my internship and passed the national board exam.

How does music help people nearing the end of life?
Music therapy is primarily used to relax patients and reduce their anxieties, which also helps to reduce the perception of pain. Music therapy can also reduce isolation, provide spiritual support, enhance communication and self-expression, bring families together, stimulate memories, and more.

Music is also multidimensional. It is unique because it can be used to access people’s lives in a relatively non-threatening way. Whatever a person’s history, music can be the glue that reconnects people to their youth, adulthood, family, culture and professional lives. That’s why it’s important to use the music from a patient’s life to bring all of that to bear.

How do you decide what music to play for patients?
Our patients have a wide variety of musical tastes and abilities. Patients who are still functional can tell me directly what kind of music they like, and that is where we begin.

On the other end of the spectrum are those patients with no verbal ability; they might be confused or have no recollection of the kind of music they like. This is when I rely on families to help me out. If there is no family or friend, then determining the right kind of music can be done through trial and error, starting with the songs of their youth or religion.

I observe reactions, such as changes in facial expression, breathing and sounds they make, like sighing or groaning. A furrowed brow may prompt me to switch playing styles, instruments, songs or genres. I may pick up the tempo or slow it down. It requires observational skills, reading nuances and adjusting what I’m doing to help move that person to a more comfortable place emotionally, mentally, spiritually or physically.

What is a moment that moved you in your work as a music therapist?
I had been visiting a gentleman and his family in their home for several months. The music therapy sessions were a full-family activity where I had written songs and recorded them specifically for the family. We had a very nice relationship.

But the gentleman was declining, and we had to transfer him to one of our hospice residences. He was lying in bed with his family gathered around. He had not spoken in two or three days. We were singing one of his favorite hymns, and when we got to the chorus he moved his mouth in sync with a few lyrics. That was all it was — two or three words, no sounds, he was just mouthing the words. The family witnessed this, and they were amazed. They began to cry, “He can hear!” That was such an important moment for them; it was their last conscious contact — it warmed their hearts and provided a lasting connection with their husband and father.

So now, I will never stop singing to a patient because a family tells me, “He’s not responding anymore.” It’s very meaningful for the family, when a loved one is waning, to just have something — even just a little spark to reignite that connection.

For the media: To talk with Deb Cowan about music therapy for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at

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