MOSTHistory Collection Series: San Juan music therapy

by Kelly Francis-Love

One of the treasures found within the Margaret H. McAllen Memorial Archives is a set of scrapbooks from the San Juan Music and Dramatic Arts Club that contains a piece of early music therapy history.

Music therapy is the use of music to help improve physical and mental health.  People of all ages, those with developmental and learning disabilities, neurological conditions, physical disabilities, and both acute and chronic pain can all benefit from music therapy.  While music therapy is common practice today, this was not always the case.  The earliest mention of using music for healing purposes was in a 1789 article, followed by two medical dissertations in the early 1800s.

After the world wars, both amateur and professional musicians would play for patients at veterans’ hospitals.  Notable physical and emotional responses from patients led to doctors requesting that hospitals add musicians to their staffs.

The San Juan Music and Dramatic Art Club began in 1920 as a branch of the San Juan Women’s Club.  One of the founding members had attended meetings of the McAllen Music Club and used this to serve as an example for how to organize the club.

Included in one of the San Juan scrapbooks is a music therapy program arranged by Mrs. H. O. Schaleben, the program chairman.  The music therapy program used by the San Juan club was based upon information from the National Foundation of Musical Therapy, established in 1941 by Harriet Ayer Seymour.  Ms. Seymour wrote one of the first American texts on the topic of music therapy.  The San Juan program includes music selections it notes are suitable for a surgical ward, a war-shocked ward, a place “where quiet is needed for over shocked patients,” a mental ward, and an orthopedic ward.  It also includes pieces appropriate for children with tuberculosis, convalescing adults, and patients with home sickness or mental depression, as well as music on a “spiritual level for adults.”  There is no date on the program itself, but based on other materials in the scrapbook it appears it may be from November 1944.

This program demonstrates that seventy years ago members of the San Juan community were utilizing some of the latest clinical research in their recognition of how music can help in the healing process.