When people find out we’re music therapists, many respond with something like,
"Music is my therapy!”, because it’s pretty instinctive for us humans to express and hold ourselves in difficult times using music. So, what is it about work with a board-certified music therapist that can transform us on levels beyond the everyday ways we already use music (for instance during workouts or times additional focus, relaxation, or a shift in mood is desired)? There are many answers to this question, some of which we’ll address in later posts; for now, we’ll share our top three reasons why music therapy works.
Music is a container and co-therapist
Have you ever heard a song and felt somehow held by it, like you’re wrapped in a blanket or soaking in a bath? Or maybe you’ve heard music that felt completely overwhelming or chaotic, and you had to turn it off or tune it out to keep from crawling out of your skin. Music acts as a powerful container for our environment and our internal world, a container that can have many different sizes and textures. Sounds that are emotionally evocative or unpredictable provide very different sorts of containers for our environmental and internal experience than sounds that are more neutral or predictable, and what someone finds neutral versus evocative depends greatly on cultural and individual factors. Because of music’s capacity to lend therapeutic containment with varied degrees of freedom and security to the process, it is sometimes described as the “co-therapist” in a music therapy session.
Music & Imagery is an example of how music acts as a container and co-therapist in the music therapy setting. In Music & Imagery sessions, carefully chosen music is used, alongside guided relaxation and a mutually agreed upon script, to access feelings and images that can promote positive change. These feelings and images are utilized to safely examine one’s inner world, habits, and interpersonal connections. The examination of oneself through Music & Imagery can lead to experiences of transcendence, as well as growth in many areas, including transformation of unhelpful thought, behavior, and relational patterns.
Music accompanies psycho-social-spiritual development
Music connects us with our innermost self, but also with our community. Whether we are the company of others or attending to our own experience in solitude, creating or hearing music is inherently relational. In music therapy, the relational nature of music is centered between the therapist and client(s). Not only are client and therapist relating to one another, but client and therapist are also relating to the music (the “co-therapist”) in individual and shared ways. Everyone has patterns of relating to their inner self as well as relating to the people around them, and for all of us there are times in which examining and changing our patterns is necessary. The dialogue, music experiences, and partnership between the client and therapist in music therapy provides a creative, supportive relational space in which old patterns can be explored and new ways of being can be actively imagined.
In addition to being relational, music connects many people with a spiritual tradition or sense of the divine. Engaging in music is an ancient way of altering states of consciousness and accessing mystical realms of human experience; it is also supported by contemporary scientific and artistic thought. In almost every group within every world religion, chants are invoked, hymns are sung, drums and strings are sounded, bells are chimed… the list of the myriad ways in which we experience divinity through music goes on. So, regardless of a person’s individual spiritual or existential beliefs (or absence of any specific belief), the capacity of music to get us in touch with feelings of transcendence and creative flow makes it a powerful modality for addressing our psychological, social, and spiritual needs.
Music connects us to the body
As music therapists, we know from our own experiences and the experiences of our clients that music is a whole-person experience; in other words, music affects every part of us. As babies we experience pleasure and express our body’s needs through vocal sounds; perhaps a parental figure bounces or rocks us while talking in hushed, melodic tones or singing a lullaby. As children, we spontaneously dance and sing in our world of play. As adolescents, we gravitate toward albums and bands that help us cope with increasingly complex emotional, physiological, and hormonal processes. By the time we are adults our relationships to our bodies are quite complicated by past and present health challenges or disabilities, occupational and family responsibilities, and trauma or unmet emotional needs to name a few. When we re-establish a connection to the body that may have been previously set aside to survive a difficult situation, we become more emotionally available to ourselves and others, develop mature and agile intuition that guides decision-making, are more creative and effective in our work or life pursuits, and experience an improved sense of well-being.
Engaging with music is multisensory; to sing, play a drum, or listen to a live instrument activates not only our auditory system but also our proprioception (through sound vibration), our tactile and visual systems, and our autonomic nervous system (affecting heart and breath rate) as well as peripheral nervous system (affecting voluntary movement like toe tapping). As music therapists, we are trained to help people safely re-connect with these information and energy centers, and perhaps experience the body’s innate capacity for creativity and healing in ways previously unexplored.
Maybe some of these reasons resonate with you, and are what have led you to this threshold of discovering what music therapy has to offer. Maybe there are other reasons and curiosities you hold. We would love to hear from you. To tell us about your reasons for seeking music therapy, drop us a line.