Performers use music to help people recuperate from long-term illness

Performers at the recent Music Can Heal concert included Debbie Danbrook on shakuhachi and Chris Gartner on guitar KOLLIN LORE PHOTO
Performers at the recent Music Can Heal concert included Debbie Danbrook on shakuhachi and Chris Gartner on guitar KOLLIN LORE PHOTO

It has been said that laughter is the best medicine. But for many with chronic illnesses or disabilities, the best medicine may actually be music.

In medical research labs across Canada, there has been work done to explore how music affects the brain and the body. When played at a certain frequencies, music can help treat symptoms of some diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Take the story of self-taught multi-instrumentalist Donald Quan. In 2009, during a concert in Kitchener, Ont., Quan nearly died from a stroke onstage. He was pronounced dead, but then returned to life and remained in a coma for three weeks.

During his time in intensive care, friends from the musical community visited and played songs he liked. Slowly, his disability faded, and Quan had the urge to return to playing music when he regained consciousness.

“For a lot of people, when they’re in palliative care, hearing is the first sense they get and the last sense to go,” says Talia Wooldridge, the executive director and co-founder of Toronto non-profit Music Can Heal.

Music Can Heal provides live music to hospitals, hospices and private homes to help patients recuperate.

The organization began a weekly summer concert series on June 15 at Toronto’s Earl Bales Park. These concerts are free and under the banner of Arts in the Parks, a pilot program in partnership with the Toronto Arts Council.

Quan performed at the first concert in the series, alongside Debbie Danbrook, Steve Lucas and Chris Gartner. About 40 people turned out, despite some rain.

The concert series hopes to serenade listeners in a variety of genres, and showcase the efforts of the more than 20 musicians who volunteer for the organization.

One of those volunteers, Toronto musician and professor Brian Katz, explains that Quan’s experience in the arts helped him recover with such speed. Those who have played music for many years have strong neural pathways, since learning how to play music benefits many sections of the brain.

Similarly, listening to music can also engage the brain, enhancing activity in many sections and even helping to retrieve distant memories.

“There’s so much significant research in terms of people gaining, at least temporarily, part of their memory [from music],” Katz says.

While Music Can Heal’s volunteers are not official music therapists, many have comprehensive musical education and training. The organization also provides resources for musicians who want to study the proper way to perform bedside.

The volunteer must be sensitive to the patients and be able to figure out the kind of instrument, sound, volume and genre that can be helpful to the patient. Certain frequencies or songs could negatively affect those in recovery.

Research suggests that patients respond best to music they enjoy or with which they are familiar.

“If you’re a refugee or an immigrant and you’re in the hospital, and you want to hear a live instrument from your homeland, we can generally provide that or a style of music that’s similar,” Wooldridge says.


Using music for healing purposes is a tradition that goes back centuries, but with new advances in neurological music therapy, more attention is being focused on the possibilities.

Wooldridge points to results from a new study by the University of Toronto’s Music and Health Research Collaboratory, which explores the effects of low frequency (40 hz) vibrations on the body.

Dr. Lee Bartel and his team created a unique chair – when people sit on it, they are exposed to a deep, inaudible vibration from subwoofers. According to the team’s research, this new “audioceutical” should aid in relieving symptoms of Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

Nevertheless, despite these breakthroughs, music therapy is still one of the first services cut from hospitals, Wooldridge tells The CJN. In many circumstances, musicians can only help out if asked specifically by the patient.

“We’re there to try to fill the gap,” she says.