Jennifer Buchanan – who has roots in Scotland, Wales, and England – says that it was a family health crisis that first inspired her life’s calling.

“I witnessed the power of music as a young teen when my Grandad had his second stroke leaving him unable to speak or walk,” she shares via email from her home in Calgary, Alberta. “It was my Granny who asked me to bring my guitar to the hospital center and sing his favorite song (White Cliffs of Dover). As I sang, I watched the face of the grumpy old man I thought I knew shed the tears of a man who wanted a more meaningful connection.”

That experience inspired Buchanan to register in a music therapy degree program. She later founded JB Music Therapy, which has been instrumental in the implementation of hundreds of music therapy initiatives across Canada for 30 years.

“I have always been curious about how music resonates strongly with people – and equally as curious as to why different music evokes emotional responses. Was it a certain chord progression or tempo that draws people in? Why are we attracted to songs written in a certain style? What role do lyrics play in these preferences? And the bigger question; how can we leverage the science and clinical evidence to replicate music’s benefits? My work as a music therapist has granted me many of these answers, but has also deepened my curiosity, leading me to continue to seek research to inform my clinical practice and grow our team so we can increase our impact.”

Her organization – which employs a diverse team of 18 Certified Music Therapists (MTAs) – currently works in a myriad of medical settings, including intensive care, burn, neurorehabilitation, mental health, and forensic units.

“We also do in end-of-life care – including hospice and palliative care – and, in addition, we are involved with group homes for adults with disabilities, long-term care, and dementia care facilities, as well as preschools and high schools. Working in the community feels like we are a part of something much bigger.”

Buchanan – who is also the Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Music Therapists – has extended her teachings through a series of books. Her 2015 tome, Tune In, explored the idea of using music intentionally to reduce stress and boost mood. Her latest effort, Wellness, Wellplayed, is about one specific technique, broken down into different exercises.

“I wanted to give more attention to one of my favorite concepts – designing purposeful playlists. Each exercise in the book is designed to provide readers with a process and a product that will benefit their emotional health and wellbeing. Playlists can be a bridge to something deeper within ourselves, and a way to address our human need to feel, create, and connect. Wellness, Wellplayed also blends education with fun – something I feel that we all need right now. In addition to the experiential exercises, readers will also have many opportunities to reflect on the past and feel inspired for their future. The book delves into the history of the mixtape, as well as how music is processed in the brain. There are also inspirational stories on how others are connecting to their music that I hope encourages the reader to do the same.”

She notes that there has never been a more important time for people to discover the healing power of music.

“In Canada, according to the non-profit research institute ICES, 1 in 5 children and youth experience a mental illness at any given time. The Canadian Mental Health Association also shares that in any given year, 1 in 5 people in Canada will personally experience a mental health problem or illness. By age 40, about 50 per cent of the population will have, or have had, a mental illness, affecting people of all ages, education, income levels, and cultures; however, systemic inequalities such as racism, poverty, homelessness, discrimination, colonial and gender-based violence, among others, can worsen if mental health supports are difficult to access. I believe that after the pandemic has finally subsided, we will see the full effects of the mental health crisis on our hands. Having access to mental health professionals – including music therapists – as well as greater access to leisure facilities and creative spaces where people can gather will be part of the solution.

“Music brings meaning into moments, but on a more complex level, it impacts brain function and human behaviour. It also reduces stress, relieves pain, and improves symptoms of isolation and depression. It boosts our mood, enhances our memory, and motivates us as well.”

Buchanan hopes to expand her reach over the coming years.

“I would love to continue to engage in lively discussion around the benefits of music, music therapy and our emotional health and well-being. I can already feel this is happening here in Canada and I look forward to more opportunities in other countries as well.”