Music therapy… oh that’s interesting! What is that actually? What do you do in such a session? I’m not musical, so is this form of therapy not for me?
These are the most common statements and questions I am asked as a music therapist. And it is not all so easy to answer. Here is a short and simplified answer to what music therapy is: It is a form of therapy that uses music and all musical means and processes to get into a healing process. This includes listening to music (receptive), feeling music (sound/vibration therapy), actively making music with voice and/or instruments, rhythm, movement, dance, painting, and creating to music.
The definition on the website of the German Music Therapy Society reads:
Music therapy is the targeted use of music within the therapeutic relationship to restore, maintain and promote mental, physical, and spiritual health. Music therapy is a practice-oriented scientific discipline that interacts closely with various scientific fields, especially medicine, social sciences, psychology, musicology, and education.
The term “music therapy” is a summary designation for different music-therapeutic conceptions, which are characterized by their nature as psychotherapeutic, in distinction to pharmacological and physical therapy. Music-therapeutic methods follow equally depth-psychological, behavior-therapeutic-learning-theoretical, systemic, anthroposophical, and holistic-humanistic approaches. ( Source: Kassel Theses)
What I can say from my practice is that music is always useful to use when there are no words (yet) or feelings feel unclear and cannot be verbalized or when words need a break.
It is more difficult to answer the question of what happens in a music therapy session. Actually, as in any psychotherapeutic practice, different approaches and methods are useful depending on the client, the initial situation and the objective. So, each session, depending on the mood of the moment, a different method may apply.
Yes, I know that talk therapy is easy to imagine. There we talk about the problem. Although it is far from everything that talk therapy does, it is easier for us to imagine this session. There are different approaches to music therapy, which are particularly helpful depending on the problem or the wish of the accompaniment. For example, there are music therapy methods that have been developed specifically for tinnitus clients, i.e. that focus more on the body and perception. There is neonatal music therapy that supports newborns and their parents in the premature care unit, providing basic and regulatory support. There is social music therapy and group therapy that can use psychosocial, attachment, or behavioral therapy methods. There are sound therapies that use vibrational instruments to address the body and mind, are highly regulative, and promote body awareness. Music therapy can also be a good accompaniment in crises, grief, or other personal life processes. It can be used for everyone – for young people, for old people, for people with disabilities, it can be used integratively, productively, and also inactively (as a listener). There are a variety of methods, which in turn have a variety of effects on clients and that’s great. We are not all the same and we are not all in the same mood every day, so therapy should be adapted to the client.
So, we just make music and dance or relax to musical sounds in the therapy session?
No, of course not. An important part of the therapeutic work is the reflection of what is happening or has happened in this therapy framework. Using music as a tool, we try to point out, express, name, verbalize, understand and contextualize our feelings, thoughts, moods, behaviors, lovingly accept and embrace them, perhaps change beliefs or behaviors, and ideally integrate what we have recognized into our own life story. Phew, sounds like a lot of time-consuming and hard work – yes, it is not easy to deal with your past experiences and current behaviors or problems, but there is no pill for instant mental healing. But it’s worth the effort to explore your own psyche because instead of standing still, you can only grow.
Simple and much more interesting to me however, is the answer to the question, of whether you have to be musical if you want to try this kind of therapy.
But first there are some counter-questions from me: What does musicality mean? What are the guidelines for musical or non-musical? Who claims or has claimed that you are not musical?
In my eyes there is no such thing, there is no one who is not musical. It is impossible. Music and rhythm are something that has always accompanied us. Already in the womb we are surrounded by sounds and especially rhythms. The heartbeat, pulse, breathing and movements of the mother, all sounds of organs and noises from outside are perceived muffled by the amniotic fluid as a warm soundscape by the unborn, about the 12th week of pregnancy, so very early in our lives. This sound and rhythm backdrop is the soundtrack of our primal trust.
All our needs during this time were unconditionally satisfied. So we already stored music in the womb as something regulating and calming, as something linked to safety, security and connection. This is why it is so helpful to sing lullabies, soothing songs, or simply songs to cheer up babies and children. Because we need security and safety to sleep, because we can’t regulate ourselves yet and a calming song is just the right thing to do then, and because we can feel the bond with our parents and fellow human beings very well with funny songs.
This so early knowledge about the effect of music on us is in all of us!
This imprint also explains the effect of film music on us, which lets us enter even more into the dramaturgy of the film and awakens in us our own feelings.
And it is also the reason why I don’t know any person – and I claim that there is no one at all – who doesn’t like music in some way.
Everything we associate with musicality is what we have been taught about music in our respective cultures.
From this often arises this insecurity or the assertion (belief): I am unmusical. The judgment by teachers and fellow men on musical performances, which often goes along with great overcoming, put exactly such sentences into our head and unfortunately remain stuck there for a long time. Who likes to overcome himself again when he has experienced a disappointment or injury?
What is considered harmonious and disharmonious in our upbringing – has nothing to do with the musicality that can emerge from you and is not at all a prerequisite for music therapy accompaniment.
I can only recommend to anyone who believes they are not musical to do it again and again. Anything that feels good to you in the process is good!
Yes, and what about all the excellent musicians, they seem to be more musical than others, don’t they?
These musicians have used their musical potential, i.e. what we were all born with, more than others. Everything needs its time and practice and the necessary interest.
Christine Hoefs | Therapy between sounds
Practice for music, sound and trauma therapy