Never underestimate the power of music: Disney-Pixar's 'Coco'

Source:   Gbtimes

Source: Gbtimes

Warning: this post contains spoilers.


March is Music Therapy Awareness month, so I thought I would share a little #DoseOfMT with you today. Just a quick update: my music therapy internship has been keeping me very busy and mentally exhausted - I've been finding it a little difficult to stay social and make my brain work at night, which is why I took a short break from blogging. BUT I think I'm getting accustomed to this new life of mine.

What do I do when I get home? After hitting the gym, indulge in guilty pleasures: reading youth fiction (I'm currently finishing up The Heroes of Olympus) and watching rom coms and/or family movies (rated nothing above PG-13). Last week, we decided to watch Disney-Pixar's 'Coco' for the first time. I didn't know what to expect, except that it won the best animated feature of the year, and is about music and set in Mexico. And that it will make you cry (which didn't happen to me... but that doesn't mean I wasn't touched). Though what made this movie so special is that it addresses the the healing properties of music, especially with memory.

It is established right at the beginning of the film that the beloved musical wonder-child Miguel's grandmother, Coco, is fairly unresponsive, and experiences memory loss. Of course, music therapy intern me pointed out that she probably has dementia (though it is also quite probable that is not the case, and Coco is just experiencing memory loss from old age). However, I still want to provide just a quick overview of dementia (Alzheimer Society of Canada):

  • Dementia is an overall term for a set of symptoms that are caused by disorders affecting the brain. Symptoms may include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language, severe enough to reduce a person's ability to perform everyday activities. A person with dementia may also experience changes in mood or behaviour. 
  • Dementia is progressive, which means the symptoms will gradually get worse as more brain cells become damaged and eventually die. 
  • Dementia is not a specific disease.
  • Around 50 million people worldwide have dementia (World Health Organization).

The big, tearjerker scene/the climax of the movie is when (SPOILERS!) Miguel plays 'Remember Me' for his great-grandmother, Coco, in hopes that she would remember her father, Héctor, before he fades away for all eternity. Through his journeys in the Land of the Dead, Miguel learns that the song was written by Héctor for his young daughter, before leaving for his career. This song is personally significant, which is the most effective in helping memories to resurface. Now, I don't want to go into too much detail about why and how music can help bring back memories for the time being - there is a lot of research that supports this claim -  but TL;DR: music memory is generally the longest retained and not as affected by dementia as other types of memories, because listening to music activates many (if not all) parts of the brain. Coco, who as I mentioned earlier is generally unresponsive to other stimuli, begins to tap her fingers to the music, and eventually sings along with Miguel. This then starts her off on talking about memories about her father.

Cognitive and verbal responses to this level are rare, but not impossible. In my own practice, I have seen this happen before many times, memories resurfacing through the use of music (albeit, on a smaller scale). This one happened recently:

The other day I went to visit my client with dementia, and I told them that I will visit them next week for a music therapy session. "We can sing 'You Are My Sunshine' together," I had said (this was apparently their favourite song). And they responded with "My only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are grey." This is somebody who does not respond much verbally otherwise. They would also sing happily and loudly along to songs like 'Que Sera Sera' and 'My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean' during sessions. Music therapists tend to be a little annoyed with those songs because they have to sing them so often, but my God do they work wonders! 

For further reading RE: Coco x music and memory, check out this article here.

There is another scene in the film that subtly alludes to music therapy: 'Everyone Knows Juanita'. 

In this scene, Miguel and Héctor visit Chicharrón, who is slowly fading away, approaching his "second death". As I am currently working in palliative/end-of-life care, I immediately recognized this place where ghosts go when they are forgotten/fading away as such. The old ghost promises to give Héctor his most prized possession - his guitar - in exchange for one simple request: that Héctor play his favourite song. And then Chicharrón fades into nothingness, leaving the world with a peaceful smile resting upon his face, and a simple "thank you." Of course, as mentioned before, this is not music therapy, but it is an avid example of the therapeutic benefits of music in end-of-life care: how it gives patients a sense of peace, some familiarity, and a chance to reflect upon their life lived and the memories that came with it. It is interesting to note that Chicharrón passed only after the music was played, showing music as a therapeutic tool to help ease the transition from life to death, and to help someone come to terms with their own mortality. Initially, I was a little wary and nervous about working in palliative care due to some recent personal losses, but I have found that this opportunity is something so much bigger than me; it is not about me, but about how my music - my playing, my singing, my being - can do something for others. Music is the tool, I am the vessel. It is definitely a very rewarding experience, being a light to someone in their final moments and learning from them what life is all about.

I had so many good feelings about this movie and how they addressed music and memory, as well as alluding to music therapy. No wonder it won the best animated feature of the year! As for doing music therapy myself, I have been learning a lot in all areas: musically, professionally, interpersonally, and through wisdom shared to me by my clients. Nothing else in the world can beat the feeling you get when clients tell you that what you do is so special and life-changing for them, and to keep up the meaningful work. I know I am making a difference, leaving my footprint in their heart, helping them enjoy life just a little bit more. And this is what continuously makes me so passionate about the work I do

Also, I would like to acknowledge Kevin Middlebrooks, LPMT, MT-BC from Metro Music Therapy for writing this FANTASTIC article RE: music therapy in Coco - it inspired this post of mine. It was great to know that another music therapist also had similar thoughts/reactions to me while watching the film. He also talks more in-depth about how these two scenes mirror music therapy, so take a read!

That's all for now - going to try to catch up on some more posts, following my 2-month hiatus,