A growing body of research shows us that music has powerful effects on the mind. Different styles of music can have a significant effect on a person’s mood very quickly, and it can help them experience and process a wide range of emotions, from happiness to excitement, as well as sadness, calmness, and thoughtfulness.

Music therapy involves using a person’s responses and connections to music to encourage positive changes in mood and overall well-being. Since emerging as a therapeutic practice over 70 years ago, it has helped people of various ages, abilities, and musical backgrounds heal from trauma and connect with their emotional landscape. You can find music therapists in hospitals, schools, community groups and private therapist settings as well.

This spring, music therapy was brought to Covenant House. Led by four students of this specialized profession, music therapy sessions take place on Tuesdays (run by Tolitha and Laura, pictured above) and Thursdays (run by Emma & Emily) and are open to youth and staff.

“I met these therapists at a class I was taking at the University of Toronto in January and thought how beneficial it would be to provide this type of service to the youth who have gone through so much in their lives,” said Spiritual Care Advisor Ram Villardo. “Many of the youth here at Covenant House already express themselves through music, so this is a natural fit.”

On a recent Thursday, Emma Burke-Kleinman and Emily Ninavaie started off by asking participants to play an instrument based on how they were currently feeling. This set the tone for the rest of the hour-long session. There was a mixture of positive and negative emotions emerging from those who showed up to participate. One person picked up a drum and started beating it intensely, another had fun shaking a tambourine.

Emma and Emily used what they observed and focused the session on making music, which can be as beneficial as listening to it. They demonstrated this through an exercise in which the group was asked to listen to and then change the lyrics of Let It Be, by The Beatles. The group substituted certain lyrics with words they associate with stress and words they associate with a sense of calm. After singing the newly written song, the group shared how they felt: Calm. Happy. Elated.

“Our goal is to help people reduce their stress and anxiety levels through a creative channel,” said Emily. “Each group is different, so we focus on certain things depending on what the group desires.”

Sessions can include creating music with instruments of all types, singing, song writing, moving to music, or just listening to it. The therapists can also integrate different creative arts, such as painting or drawing, into a session.

Although self-expression is a part of talk therapy, music therapy allows people to express themselves creatively, which can be a more enjoyable and accessible way of exploring difficult emotions.

Ram has been encouraged by the many positive changes he’s seen in youth and staff attending sessions and hopes to continue building the momentum of the music therapy groups within programming at Covenant House.

“I feel that these sessions create positive bonds between people, and it shows the youth that everyone at Covenant House is in the same boat when it comes to dealing with some form of stress and anxiety,” says Ram. “It creates common ground.”