Where Words Fail, Music Speaks

Imagine walking through a doorway, sunlight shining through the windows, into a room where a hospice, or end-of-life care, patient lies on the bed in front of you. With your guitar in hand, you ask the patient and her husband what their music preferences are, to which they respond that they both love Frank Sinatra. The first song by Frank Sinatra that you can think of is “The Way You Look Tonight.” As you’re playing, you notice the husband reach his hand out to the patient, who gets up out of her bed and starts dancing with him. Once the song is over, the patient looks at you with tears in her eyes and tells you “The Way You Look Tonight” is the first song the couple danced to at their wedding reception.


Photo credit: jameslee via pixabay

Stephanie Surber, a Music Therapist for Bon Secours, is fortunate enough to tell and have experienced this miraculous story.

As stated in Bon Secours’ mission statement, It is Bon Secours’ purpose “to bring God’s healing, compassion and liberation to people in need. Special attention is given to those who are poor, sick or dying by helping to alleviate their suffering and bringing them a message of hope and assurance that there is a God who loves them.” In Paris, in 1824, twelve women gathered to collectively express their devotion to Jesus Christ by tending to the wounds of those who were ill and in extremis. This was the start of the Bon Secours Health System.

There are six Bon Secours facilities in the Richmond area: St. Mary’s Hospital, Memorial Regional Medical Center, Richmond Community Hospital, St. Francis Medical Center, St. Francis Watkins Centre, and the Heart Institute at Reynolds Crossing. Stephanie Surber works at Memorial Regional.*

Surber grew up in Morgantown, West Virginia, then moved to Winchester, Virginia, where she attended Shenandoah University for her undergraduate degree. While at Shenandoah, Surber started out as a music theater major; however, she did not like the idea of the “gypsy life” that came along with being a performer. Therefore, she quickly changed her major during her sophomore year once she learned about music therapy.

“[Music Therapy] combined my love of people and music so it seemed like the right niche for me.”


Photo credit: Elliott Billings via Flickr

Music Therapy is the clinical use of music interventions to help attain individualized goals. It provides different avenues for communication that can be extremely beneficial to those who cannot express themselves in words. For Surber, the idea of attaining these goals has always been immensely important; she believes that one of the most crucial goals that music therapy works towards is patient family coping. If a family is having trouble handling the patient’s diagnosis, they can be pulled into the session. The therapists work arduously to make sure the goal of patient family coping not only helps the family members let go but also to move on after the patient has passed.

Music therapists work in numerous places, including rehabilitative facilities, nursing homes, medical hospitals, private practice, psychiatric hospitals, schools, day care treatment centers, community mental health centers, drug and alcohol programs, hospice programs, outpatient clinics, halfway houses, and correctional facilities. These therapists are trained to be sensitized to the extreme emotions surrounding death, so they can empathize with the patients and their families. 

In situations with minimally responsive patients, it is more strenuous for the patient to put out information than it is to take in sensory information. Although the patient may not be able to express how they are feeling, Surber explains that ”music can create an instant rapport and build such a trusting relationship so quickly and naturally.” From an evolutionary standpoint, music precedes language and the brain is wired to respond to music, even though it is not necessary for our survival. Music is able to tap into our emotional systems; listening to certain music can make someone feel a particular way. The ability of music to easily access our emotions is exceptionally beneficial for music therapists like Surber.

The concept of music therapy has been practiced for years; however, it is still fairly new to many people. Luckily, the medical profession, as a whole, has accepted the idea that music can be helpful. It not only brings joy, but it also creates an environment that allows families to develop and focus on their overall well-being.

This is a promotional video of the music therapy program at Bon Secours. Video Credit: Bon Secours

More information about music therapy through VCU Health. 

Cover photo: Getty Images

* Correction: This sentence originally stated: “Stephanie Surber works at every one of these facilities when needed.”

About the author

Olivia is a Senior at Collegiate who loves flavor blasted goldfish but strongly dislikes the new speed bumps.