Profile: Meet Dr. Song, the therapist who treats patients with music

9 December 2019

Unlike most doctors with stethoscopes in their hands, wheelchair-bound Song Yichuan treats his patients with a guitar, a piano and several microphones.

Surrounded by five patients, among which four are sitting in wheelchairs, 34-year-old Song chooses a soothing song to start his treatment with his patients chorusing like a karaoke session.

“They need to strengthen their diaphragm and singing can help,” he said.

Song is a music therapist who uses music to help patients with their physical and psychological rehabilitation at the China Rehabilitation Research Center in Beijing.

Music therapy is an established health profession in which music is used within a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals. Research supports its effectiveness in many areas such as overall physical rehabilitation and facilitating movement, according to the American Music Therapy Association.

This kind of therapy was introduced into China in the 1980s. Chinese music therapists must have their qualifications authenticated by the Chinese Professional Music Therapist Association.

Most of Song’s patients suffer from paraplegia or cerebral trauma. Because of their injuries, they have difficulty in speaking or breathing.

“With their atrophied diaphragms, they can’t speak loudly or expectorate by themselves. Singing can help them improve,” Song said.

In Song’s treatment room which is full of instruments including a piano, a guitar, a drum set and maracas, he makes efforts to improve his patients’ condition through a steady stream of songs.

“I want to sing a song…it’s…it’s called ‘A Little Happiness,'” said Xiaoqiu (pseudonym), a 28-year-old patient.

Xiaoqiu sang the song to the music in a fragmented fashion. Six months ago, an accident left her with a clouded mind and impaired speech. When she first met Song, it took her almost half a minute to say “hello.”

Xiaoqiu is a fan of Jay Chou, a famous pop singer. When she came to Song’s class for the first time, Xiaoqiu was met with a familiar melody of Jay’s song, but she burst into tears because she couldn’t remember how to sing it.

At that time, Xiaoqiu spoke too slowly to sing along with the music, so Song had to play a guitar to lead her. “I play very slowly to help her catch up,” he said.

After half a year’s practice, Xiaoqiu gradually regained some of her speaking ability.

“You have made big progress. It’s not perfect, but I believe you can do better in the future,” Song said.

Song started to work as a professional music therapist in 2016, when a music therapy center was founded in the China Rehabilitation Research Center, one of a small number of such centers in the country.

In the past three years, he has treated more than 50 patients aged between 6 and 70. But his first patient was himself.

When he studied music at the Minzu University of China, Song dreamed of becoming a singer. However, in 2007, he was paralyzed from the chest down after an accident and his dream was shattered.

“I couldn’t speak loudly and my breath was weak after the accident,” Song said.

He sang almost every day in hospital to ease his sorrow. To his surprise, he was gradually able to speak louder.

Song started to combine the knowledge of singing he learned at university with his rehabilitation, and often sought advice from respiratory physicians to update his own knowledge.

The obvious change in his physical and mental condition attracted many patients to sing together with him.

Since then Song has transformed from a patient to a doctor.

“I have experienced what they are suffering. So I am their friend instead of their doctor,” Song said.

Song has never given up on his music dream, although he has experienced a change in venue. “The hospital is my new stage and the patients are my audience,” he said.


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