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Singing In Faith: Providing Spiritual Support as a Music Therapist

By Keivanna Thomas, MusicWorx Intern

As a music therapist, I’ve had to learn how to use my personal faith as an asset in clinical situations. On one hand, some patients and clients don’t bring up the topic of faith. On the other hand, I’ve experienced many encounters with patients and clients who identify as Christian but don’t expect music therapists to be spiritually competent, and are surprised to discover that we not only know religious music, but often have a faith of our own and are equipped to connect with a patient in this manner. 

In approaching the topic of faith, take the patient/client’s lead. Take note of their physical surroundings, their verbal expressions and their music preferences. Ask non-implicatory questions based on your observations, and follow up on the patient’s responses when clinically appropriate.

Music therapists and practitioners of faith share common goals: to offer hope, provide comfort, and allow patients the space to process their pain in relation to their beliefs. These needs are all too common in the hospital setting, as well as among many outpatient populations.

Below are some of the ways I’ve found music therapy can offer hope, provide comfort, and create an environment to process pain across Christian denominations. According to a U.S. religious landscape study, Christians account for 70.6% of the American population (Pew Research Center, 2020). I have found that, despite the vastly different ideologies that exist among Christian faiths, music can be a unifying common denominator.

While the music resources I will list below are specific to the Christian faith, the overarching principles discussed can be applied across several faiths, as well as to clients who do not identify with a particular faith but consider themselves to be spiritual. The important factor is assessment of the role faith plays in a patient’s life; from that assessment, music therapists can use verbal processing to address faith-related issues such as hopelessness and the meaning of life.

Offering Hope

Often, patients want reassurance that God can bring them out of their present condition; that he can perform a miracle on their behalf. Below I’ve listed three songs about the power of God that patients have requested and connected with in the hospital setting:

Providing Comfort

Providing comfort is one of the most common effects music can have on an individual, whether they are spiritual or not. In the hospital setting, many Christians are seeking a sign that God is still with them; an encounter with music therapy may just be the sign of comfort they are looking for. Songs I’ve used to provide comfort in the hospital setting include the following:

Processing Pain

In addition to wanting reassurance of the power and presence of God, patients often bring up topics of faith that indicate they are looking for meaning in their suffering. Christianity teaches that while there is no inherent value in the act of suffering, God uses the story of one’s suffering to encourage others. Thus, patients seek to find a greater good in the midst of their hospital stay. Below are three songs which highlight this theme:

Music and Christianity Across Racial and Ethnic Backgrounds

Apart from categorizing songs by function, music therapists can learn spiritual songs that are relevant to specific ethnic backgrounds. According to a study done by Pew Research Center, “Black Americans are more religious than the American public as a whole on a range of measures of religious commitment. For example, they are more likely to say they believe in God or a higher power, and to report that they attend religious services regularly. They also are more likely to say religion is “very important” in their lives and to be affiliated with a religion…” (2021). With this in mind, I’ve listed both traditional and contemporary songs that are a part of traditionally Black Christian music genres (Spirituals, Black Contemporary Gospel), all of which achieve the functions of hope, comfort, and processing.

CCM, or Christian Contemporary Music, is another American genre of Christian music. While historically tailored to white evangelical audiences, people of all races and ethnicities now know and accept this genre. CCM songs that achieve the functions of hope, comfort,and processing include:

Crossover/Common Hymns

Lastly, aside from Amazing Grace, music therapists can use a plethora of traditional hymns that are popular with both Protestant and Catholic traditions of Christianity, and that crossover different races and ethnicities. Below are some helpful ones:

In summary, all who identify with faith and/or are in a position to provide spiritual support to others should note the importance and availability of these music resources. Despite the variety of beliefs that exist in our society, music and music therapy are tools that can provide support at times when patients/clients may need it the most.

References

Pew Research Center. (2020, September 9). Religion in America: U.S. Religious Data, Demographics and Statistics. https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/

Pew Research Center. (2021, February 16). 10 new findings about faith among Black Americans. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/02/16/10-new-findings-about-faith-among-black-americans/

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