March is Music Therapy Awareness Month! In honor of this, the Therabeat Team is spreading awareness by answering the questions: what is music therapy? why is it effective? I will be dedicating the next few blog posts to the three principles that form the foundation of music therapy and help to explain why music therapy interventions are so effective. According to Gaston, the “father of music therapy”, the following 3 principles are the primary source of direction in music therapy:
The establishment or reestablishment of interpersonal relationships
Bringing out self esteem through self-actualization
The utilization of the unique potential of rhythm to energize and bring order
For this week’s post, I will discuss the first principle: the establishment or reestablishment of interpersonal relationships. One of the criteria for becoming a functional member of society is developing the ability to successfully relate to those around us. This can be a difficult skill for anyone to learn, but especially for those who struggle with developmental delays or other disabilities. Luckily, many of the skills we use in human interaction can be accessed through music! In the words of Gaston, “Music, by its very nature, draws people together for intimate yet ordered function” (Peters, 2000, p.60).” In music therapy, we create musical experiences between two or more people (either client and therapist or client and other clients). These musical experiences provide opportunities for clients to explore communication and interaction.
There are several reasons that music is an effective mode to foster important interpersonal skills. Firstly, music serves as a unifying influence. When multiple people are making music together, the music serves as the common experience. This unifying experience can open the door to the establishment of relationships.
Secondly, music creates a non-threatening environment. For some kids, social interaction can be scary and unnatural, but playing a drum with another child is fun! Music is a safe, familiar medium through which we can practice and develop interactive skills. Music is something that is relatable and enjoyable to most people, which is something we can take advantage of as music therapists!
Lastly, music can provide many opportunities for nonverbal communication, which can eventually lead to verbal communication. Musical imitation, for example, “initiates a nonverbal form of communication, perhaps, an approximation of positive interpersonal interaction” (Hanser, 1999, p.62). As a child bangs a drum loudly, the therapist matches with a loud choppy strumming pattern on the guitar. A musical interaction as simple as this can be the beginning of the formation of an interpersonal relationship. By matching and imitating the musical choices of the children, we are validating their contributions to the musical “conversation”. Experiences such as this can build trust between the therapist and client and can also instill a sense of confidence in the child.
I had the privilege of seeing this principle at work last week during a session between one of our music therapists and a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Children with ASD often struggle with developing appropriate social skills and establishing meaningful connections with others. In this session, the music therapist and child created a musical puppet show together during which the child had the chance to improvise a song. As the child made musical choices in the moment, the therapist supported her musically on guitar. The therapist’s guitar music provided structure amidst exploration and spontaneity. This improvised song was a musical experience that brought unity and synchronicity to the therapist-client relationship. As the client continues to partake in musical experiences such as this one, she will begin to transfer the skills she is learning through music to non-musical situations and to relationships outside of the music therapy session.
This is just one example of the many ways we use music to help our clients learn to establish interpersonal relationships each day. In summary, “through participation in carefully structured therapeutic group music activities, individuals can gain insights and skills that will help them relate more successfully, appropriately, and responsibly towards others” (Peters, 2000, p.61). Stay tuned for next week’s post on Principle #2: bringing out self-esteem through self-actualization!
-Alaina Brommer, Music Therapy Intern
Hanser, S.B. (1999). The new music therapist’s handbook (pp. 62). Boston: Berkeley Press.
Peters, J.S. (2000). Music therapy: an introduction (pp. 60-61). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.