Is ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’ the most malleable song for music therapy?

Is ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’ the most malleable song for music therapy?

Coming home

I love to hear people talk about how music makes them feel. A few years ago during a presentation I asked the audience to tell me how they felt after listening to two short pieces of music. The first was a sudden and abrupt series of notes, with no harmony or clear rhythm. The audience reported feeling ‘anxious’, ‘confused’ and even ‘chaotic’. The second piece of music I played was the opening bars to the song ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’ (My Bonnie). What struck me was what happened next. The first lady to describe how the music had made her feel said that it felt like ‘coming home’. This comment has stayed with me ever since and I knew exactly what she meant. Her words perfectly described themes of comfort, predictability, warmth, soothing and a general feeling that ‘everything is alright’. It is still remarkable to me that different arrangements of notes on an instrument can produce such varied and meaningful emotions.

In my work as a Music Therapist working in care homes for elderly adults and people living with dementia, a sense of familiarity can be an extremely valuable gift to offer someone. Huge changes in a person’s physical and social environment can lead to a sense of being ‘uprooted’. Many people I work with are also experiencing symptoms such as memory loss, disorientation in time and place, and changes in mood and behaviour. Suddenly that feeling of ‘coming home’, that may once have been a daily occurrence, may now be much harder to come by.

One song, many meanings

In music therapy, music is used in a spectrum of ways to support a person’s well-being. This may be helping to evoke a sense of familiarity, encouraging self-expression, inspiring reminiscent conversations, facilitating movement, or many other varied and personal ways. I wanted to focus on ‘My Bonnie’ in this article because I am often spellbound at the sheer number of different ways the song can be used. The following examples are not exhaustive and have been grouped into four general areas of use.

Calm

From casual relaxation sessions to the alleviation of chronic anxiety, I have found that ‘My Bonnie’ has been an effective choice of song. For starters, the song is in triple timing, meaning there are three beats in each bar or ‘segment of music’. This type of timing can give the impression of a rocking motion and is the same timing as Brahms’ famous ‘Lullaby’. The melody is also predictable, both because it is a very well-known tune and because it features much repetition. The simple predictable nature of the tune creates a reassuring feel to the song, especially when it is played slowly. The chords used in ‘My Bonnie’ are also simple and predictable. The song can be played with only the three most basic chords in western music (I,IV,V). Whilst some versions feature an extra chord (II7), this can be removed to avoid the creation of extra harmonic tension.

The lyrics of ‘My Bonnie’ also contribute to a calm feeling. They can create in the listener imagery of the ocean or a beach, which is often associated with feelings of serenity and peace. The lyrics too, much like the melody, feature much repetition. This makes them ‘easy on the ear’, as less mental work needs to be done to process the meaning of the words.

Contextualising feelings of grief

The song is ultimately about a sense of longing. Whilst originally this may have been a longing for the return of Scotland’s ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, since then the song has taken on a million different meanings for a million different people. In sessions I have led, the song has meant to some a way of expressing to the world their grief over the loss of their lifelong partner. The term ‘bonnie’ today can be used to refer to any beloved person, making the song flexible enough to be used in this way for lost women, men and children. I have personally experienced it being used in this way for many people, regardless of gender. In this context, the swaying rhythm, repeated melody and lyrics become a secure ‘container’ for the difficult feelings the person is experiencing, instead of (or as well as) a soothing environment that aids relaxation. Before the song, the person may experience ambiguous feelings of loss, which could manifest as a fear that they have forgotten something or a lingering feeling of worthlessness. During the song, these fragments of their grief come together to be projected into the song, where the feeling is supported by the continuing music and the presence of the therapist. When using the song in this way, at times I have sang the tune wordlessly (using ‘laa’, ‘doo’ or ‘baa’), which can allow the person to experience the song and potentially their emotions, more directly, as the mental processing used to interpret language is no longer required.

Singing

The benefits of singing are immense and include enabling self-expression, boosting confidence, exercising the muscles used in speech formation and swallowing and increasing blood oxygenation. The easily overlooked fact about singing is that one does not always like to sing along (in the presence of another) to one’s favourite songs. For example, one of my favourite songs is ‘Unchained Melody’ by The Righteous Brothers. The vocal line is quite extraordinary and not something I would like to attempt impromptu in a social gathering. I would feel much more confident singing an easier song, and this would allow me to express myself in music to a greater degree.  

‘My Bonnie’ is an incredibly well-known song that has been covered by The Beatles, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Ray Charles and in 1939 the tune was adapted by English air crews to ‘Bring back my bomber to me’. The popularity of the song makes it more familiar for many and for some, less risky to sing along to. It also helps that the syllables are regularly placed along the rhythm of the song, which can make articulating the words easier.

Instrument playing

‘My Bonnie’ is also flexible in terms of the speed it can be played and the energy that can be conveyed through it. At pace, the melody has a certain momentum that can be exhilarating at times.  The piano accompaniment (left hand part) can easily be turned into an large sounding ‘Oom-pa-pa’ type rhythm and the melody lends itself well to decoration, improvisation and transposition (playing the same piece but in higher or lower keys). The fact that the song can be played entirely on the white notes of the piano also makes it a suitable piece to play whilst residents are playing xylophones and glockenspiels, as those instruments often only include the white notes of the piano. I have often played this song to people dancing with their loved ones and carers. Here the repeated melody and predictable rhythm provides a solid structure to move or clap to.

Summary

All music is malleable. That is what makes it such a perfect therapeutic medium in person-centred care and it’s why in our App, Musikind, we have needed to make different versions of the same song.  

I am a firm believer in person-centred care and ‘My Bonnie’ is only one of the many songs and pieces of music I have used in my practice as a Music Therapist. I am aware that the song is considered ‘cliché’ by some, and that it is not appropriate for everyone. However, after playing music to and with hundreds of people living in care, to me the fact is clear – the song is brilliant at bringing both the self and people together.

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