6 Ways To Use 'You Are My Sunshine' in Music Therapy

You make me happy when skies are grey...

Working in a predominantly geriatric setting, I sing this song at least once a day, if not almost every session. As much as music therapists grow tired of singing or hearing the song, we can't deny its effectiveness - IT'S A MAGICAL SONG! Various studies (I have listed the ones I read at the end of this post, if you're interested) have found that You Are My Sunshine is among the most popular songs used in music therapy sessions with older adults and with dementia. Now of course, I don't sing it without reason; I've found it to be effective in engaging groups/encouraging participation, helping with mood, and of course, reminiscence (or if my clients specifically request it).

I've only been in the field for about 2 years, but I've already witnessed the extraordinary things that this one song can do for our current older population; for example: patients with severe Alzheimer's who are unable to do any ADLs (activities of daily living) and appear to be unresponsive to all stimuli are able to sing along, their eyes lighting up, fingers or toes tapping along to the beat. But the question still remains:

why is this song so effective?

Maybe it's the simplicity, familiarity, or the positive lyrics and upbeat melody (though, the only "positive" lyrics are only really in the chorus that we all know). It's also interesting to note that You Are My Sunshine spans generations and generations - it could be just as effective with a 100-year-old Alzheimer's patient and with a 3-year-old on the autistic spectrum. The popular country song was released in 1939, and written by Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell, which makes sense as to why so many older adults are familiar with it. It was then covered by a plethora of well-known singers in their era, such as Gene Autry, Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Nat King Cole, and more. Stephen Deusner (2013) reports on salon.com that the song may have been "the most ubiquitous piece of music of the 20th century... [becoming] one of the most commercially programmed numbers in American popular music."  He also writes: "You Are My Sunshine is so deeply embedded in the popular culture that most people can’t even remember when they first heard it. They’ve simply lived with it from the time they developed a memory," (Deusner, 2013). 

6 ways to use 'you are my sunshine' in music therapy


1. Singing intervention

This is fairly straightforward - have your clients sing the song, while you accompany them on vocals, guitar, ukulele, piano, small percussive instruments, or any others that you fancy. To make things a little more interesting, or to better suit your clients' needs, you can vary some elements when you play: the key, tempo, meter, tone of your voice, instrumentation (as mentioned above), experimenting with strumming vs. finger-picking on guitar (in other words, experimenting with the accompaniment), changing up the lyrics in the moment to reflect your client/meet them where they're at... so many different options! 

Below is an example of one way I like to use this song (if only I could harmonize with + play percussion myself IRL though), playing it in triple rather than duple time for a more lilting, calming effect. A simple fingerpicking pattern provides clarity but also keeps the song grounded. I typically use this version with my patients in palliative care, at the bedside, hence the softer tone/quality of voice. 


2. Songwriting intervention

Due to the structural simplicity of the lyrics, a fill-in-the-blanks songwriting intervention is an easy way to incorporate this song into your session - this will give clients the opportunity for creative self-expression. If implemented in a group setting, this can also facilitate social interaction and group cohesion, by having the clients each contribute their own ideas to the lyrics.


You are my ___________________________ ,
My only ___________________________ ,
You make me ___________________________ ,
When ___________________________ .
You'll never know ___________________________,
How much ___________________________ ,
Please don't ___________________________ .


You can also take out all the words completely, and work with your clients to write their own lyrics to the tune of You Are My Sunshine - lyric substitution


3. Receptive piece

A music therapy friend and I composed an arrangement of You Are My Sunshine for piano (myself) and violin (friend) as an assignment for class, but we also ended up using it with my individual client during our practicum, where my friend supported me as my co-therapist. One of my goals for my client was to sustain attention, and when we introduced this piece as an intervention one day, I told my client to just sit and listen to the music, which they did - implementing a receptive intervention was a bit of a breakthrough for that particular client. 

(Please excuse the horrible electronic quality of the song - I exported it from my notation software):


4. Improvisation

Invite your client to play along with you on their instrument of choice, as you use the basic chordal progressions and some fragments of the melody (depending on your own instrument) of the song. One improvisation technique that one of my music therapy professors recommends is the ABA format: A - structured theme, B - more freer improvisation, A - return to the theme. It's always nice to start off with something familiar to the client to ease them in to the intervention, with the improvisation allowing more space for creative self-expression after they have established a connection with you their music therapist and comfort in improvising. You can also move away from improvisation on pitched instruments, to non-pitched percussion as well - do a drumming intervention and improvise various rhythms, as you and your client sing along to You Are My Sunshine.


5. chime choir

I like to use tone chimes with clients with higher cognitive functioning and motor skills/the ability to use instruments. This "chime choir" intervention was inspired by my first music therapy supervisor. The music therapist facilitating the session acts as the "conductor", and the clients are the "voices", with their assigned scale tone on their tone chime. With the help of some carefully selected karaoke backing tracks (or you can create your own too, pre-recorded or live!), the clients become a part of the chime choir. As the music therapist points to each individual, they respond by playing their tone chime. This intervention is fantastic for creating that sense of group cohesion and awareness, promoting focus and attention, aids with motor skills and movement, encouraging participation, and bonus: watching the music therapist spin around in circles looking for the correct individuals/notes is always good entertainment!

You don't necessarily have to use the correct notes for the song, but I like to match them up for the listening aesthetics and to create a connection between the music the clients are making and the familiar tune of the backing track. For You Are My Sunshine, the chords would be as follows:


(You are my SUNshine...)
IV - I
(You make me HAppy...)
IV - I
(You'll never KNOW, dear...)
I - V - I
(Please don't TAKE...)


If you and your clients are up for another challenge, another way to do this intervention is to have each client play one note of the melody on their respective tone chime, like so:


(You are my sunshine)


6. Create a mash-up

Take two (or more) familiar songs and mash them up together to create one giant familiar song. I like to use Anne Murray's version of You Are My Sunshine / Open Up Your Heart in my sessions as well (advice from another previous music therapy supervisor) - it often surprises clients when I go directly into "So let the sunshine in" rather than "The other night dear", but then they catch on and sing along; it's just another way to keep things a little more interesting with this heavily used, popular song.

These are the ways I have used You Are My Sunshine in my own practice, but I am certain that it doesn't stop with just 6 - if you have any more suggestions, please feel free to comment or shoot me a message.

And of course, these interventions can carry across to any familiar song in your repertoire - be creative! πŸ˜Š

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Baker, F., & Grocke, D. (2009). Challenges of working with people aged 60-75 years from culturally and linguistically diverse groups: repertoire and music therapy approaches employed by
          Australian Music Therapists. Australian Journal of Music Therapy, 20, 30+.

Cevasco-Trotter, A. M., VanWeelden, K., & Bula, J. A. (2014). Music Therapists’ Perception of Top Ten Popular Songs by Decade (1900s-1960s) for Three Subpopulations of
          Older Adults. Music Therapy Perspectives, 32, 165-176. doi:10.1093/mtp/miu028

Pierce, J. A. (2011). Hospice Music Therapy Song Repertoire and Music Therapy Techniques (master's thesis). The Florida State University.