Wednesday, 24 August 2016

‘God Only Knows’

In my recent blog post I said that “the half-diminished chord in ‘God Only Knows’ is probably not the active ingredient in music therapy”. This got me thinking. Brian Wilson had a complex relationship with his father and, viewed in this light, the words of the song take on an interesting meaning. “God only knows what I’d be without you”. It sounds like a love song at first, but then when you listen to the words in detail it becomes apparent that they don’t quite fit this narrative. The ‘what’ in particular is a surprise. I’ve wondered about this, whether the song is really addressed to a lover, or a parent. Since the lyrics were written by Tony Asher, the idea that this is Brian Wilson addressing his father seems fanciful, but on the other hand, the idea that there could be a love song where there is ambiguity, not only about who is being addressed, but about the nature of the relationship, is an intriguing one. Taken as a work of art removed of context, ‘God Only Knows’ could fit this model. It may be that the ambiguities running through the lyrics, alongside the harmonic ambiguities underpinning it, are what make the song so moving.

The half-diminished chord comes with the line “I'll make you so sure about it". In fact the function of the chord isn’t the usual II-7b5 as it’s a chromatic transitional chord on the #4 of E major, which leads to an A major chord in the next bar. It’s a moment of intensified harmonic ambiguity within a harmonically ambiguous piece of music. If it’s not an example of the “active ingredient” in music therapy, it’s certainly an active ingredient in some sort of process. It has a harmonic and emotional function, albeit one which might be hard to pin down.

I also said in my recent post that “music therapy doesn’t operate within a performer to audience dynamic”. I was thinking of the analogy of therapist with performer and client with audience which often seems to be an assumption made about music therapy. There might be an idea that the therapist is doing something to the client using music. This is not normally what happens in music therapy, but to say that this is ‘incorrect’ would be to oversimplify. Since the therapeutic process is two-way, the therapist’s music does have certain effects on the client. If we flip the analogy around, however, it becomes even more interesting. What if the client is the performer and the therapist is the audience? This actually works quite well a lot of the time. The half diminished chord in ‘God Only Knows’ becomes the active ingredient in music therapy when it is played by the client. Since actually doing this requires a level of musical sophistication we don’t routinely encounter the analogy might seem a bit absurd. But if we extend the analogy to include any moment of musical intensity then it begins to make more sense. Furthermore, as musical performers we all understand this. Music can be therapeutic when you go to a gig or listen to a recording, but this NEVER approaches the intensity of a meaningful performance in which you are an active participant. Not all performances are as meaningful or rewarding as they could be, but those that are; it’s a reason to be alive, to be frank.

So, ‘music isn’t medicine’? It’s misleading to say that it is, but it might also be misleading to say that it isn’t. That newly qualified colleague I mentioned before who has ‘been doing music therapy for years’. Well, the next question might be – ‘who on?’ The peak experiences that we sometimes have during performances are hard to pin down, but certainly have some quality of sharedness about them, of connection to others. Unfortunately audiences, and fellow musicians, make unreliable therapists. Sometimes they’re right there for us, but sometimes they’re not. Maybe the music therapist is partly analogous to the reliably attentive audience, partly to the sensitive fellow performer. This is still a therapy about making links, and when the links aren’t there in any musical experience, we’re unlikely to shout out ‘music is therapy!’ Maybe all music is really about making links. God only knows… ;)

Monday, 22 August 2016

Music Isn’t Medicine

I saw on Twitter recently that someone in the USA had tweeted ‘music is therapy’. They were at a conference and expressing their enthusiasm about an experience they’d had there. I didn’t do anything socially unacceptable, like replying to the tweet with my pedantic objections. I just thought to myself ‘no it isn’t’. But then I thought – what’s the motivation for saying this?

Another thing that happened, related to this, again on social media: a friend and colleague recently qualified as a music therapist, with flying colours in fact. She put this up on Facebook. She’s a highly respected performer of many years’ standing, and another musician wrote ‘you’ve been doing music therapy for years’, which was obviously meant in a nice way. People who don’t know much about music therapy, when they hear the term, tend to think first of all about the potential therapeutic properties of music itself, which is quite natural. On the BAMT website there’s a good video by Kalani Das which explains why this is an error ( ). However, music therapists do sometimes perpetuate the idea that music is intrinsically therapeutic, and that this is part of what we have to offer. It’s a good selling point perhaps.

The problem is partly semantic. Things can be ‘therapeutic’ without being ‘therapy’, just as things can smell nice without being perfume. Furthermore, music isn’t necessarily therapeutic, any more than talking is. Shakespeare or Eastenders might be therapeutic, Newsnight might not be. With music, the effect depends on context, and on what the music is. Some music has an anti-therapeutic effect on me, there being certain musical sounds which can transform my mood markedly for the worse.

Of course, some music is therapeutic, and can make me feel a lot better than I did before listening to it. This might be where a misunderstanding arises, because most of us have had this experience. If we didn’t, we probably wouldn’t bother listening to music. When we listen to music that we like, we’ve usually chosen it. There might also be something in a piece of music that we feel connects to us on a personal level, making us feel that we have shared emotional experiences with the composer or performers. One interesting question might be, is this feeling of connection intrinsic to the music itself, or is it a side effect? Is the ‘good’ feeling something transferred to us from the performer or is it arising within us? In a music therapy context, it doesn’t really matter; because music therapy doesn’t operate within a performer to audience dynamic, and, in the immediate term, doesn’t necessarily make the client feel ‘better’.

Leaving aside the fact that the music in therapy usually involves active musical participation on both sides, in contrast to a performance, it’s not the aesthetic or emotional content of the music that has the primary therapeutic effect. It’s not about the universality of music so much as the specificity of the therapeutic context. That feeling that you get from the half-diminished chord in ‘God Only Knows’ is probably not the active ingredient in music therapy. Music is a means of connection (among others like talking, body language, turning up on time etc.) but it's not the music itself (and there is such a thing as 'music itself') which is the therapeutic agent. Music therapy is, to a great extent, about the purposeful use of music to make links. These links might be interpersonal, inter-psychic or intra-psychic. The links, whether between the therapist and the client, different group members, the client’s array of internal objects, or the client and their attachment figures, are the therapy. Here it is again: the links are the therapy. So, snappy tag-lines (and magic chords) aside, music isn’t medicine.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Hearing and Being Heard

Hard-bitten professional musicians look away now…

I was ‘feeling the love’ after playing in the John Wilson Orchestra Prom last week (still on iPlayer folks…). There’s something affirming about the experience of playing in an orchestra, of being part of that delicate balancing act of creating a performance. What is John doing in the rehearsal process that creates the excitement? It’s partly about communicating attention to detail, an awareness that ‘I’m listening to you’ that keeps everyone on their toes. I felt like every one of my notes could be heard. This apparent aural omniscience is unnerving but also helpful. It implies that he will hear the subtleties of the individual contributions and that they will be appreciated, so that it’s worth making the effort: ‘tenor sax two bars before letter D (accompanying the big trumpet solo); start the vibrato a little earlier on the second minim of the bar please’.

This links to the therapist-client relationship. It’s the ‘I’m hearing you’ aspect of the therapist’s role that is analogous to the conductor. And to the players, the conductor is the representative of the audience, as well as the bridge to it. I’m not thinking too much about the people at the back of the hall because that’s his responsibility. He’s not so much the superego as the link to the other. This is analogous to the mother-infant relationship, where the mother is the connection to the outside world. It’s important not to overstate this in a professional context I suppose, because we’re all, also, just ‘turning up for work’ and ‘getting the job done’, but there’s something that makes a good performance feel really worthwhile, that’s more than just fulfilling a role. You are part of a collective experience which mirrors something fundamental about human relationships, about the need to hear and be heard.

Why do we need to be heard? Because we need to feel first that others are there, and then that they can understand us and that we are connected to them through shared experiences. The conductor, the therapist, the parent; all have a big responsibility, which is to allow this to happen.