I’ve written before about whether ‘music makes you feel better’. There might, in particular, be something therapeutic about shared music. This might happen in lots of different contexts: community settings, acute wards, closed groups, individual therapy, and so on. While music therapists might argue about how to frame the work, about whether it’s the music itself, or the relationship with the therapist, or unconscious processes being expressed through music, there seems to be some general agreement that music is an important part of the therapeutic process in music therapy, whatever it might be.
I went to a good gig last night. I try to do this as often as possible, but it never feels often enough. Anyway, I really enjoyed it, hearing Simon Purcell with the great alto player Mike Williams at Oliver’s in Greenwich. I’m missing music at the moment, not getting enough time to practice and not doing that many gigs, absorbed in my current research studies, which I’m enjoying in a different way. Research is creative, but in a more cerebral way than making music. One of the questions arising out of the research is about the perceived effects of music therapy sessions. What do parents observe about their children’s response to music therapy? I hope to tell you more about this soon! One idea that has come up in discussions I’ve had with parents in other contexts, which won't be news to music therapists, is that children are often calmer, less anxious, after their music therapy session. This can last a while, sometimes as long as a day or two. This chimes with my own experience of music. I feel better after playing, or after hearing a live performance. This usually lasts for a little while, but never more than a day or two. The experience fades. If I haven’t been to any live music for a while, I begin to lose interest in listening to recorded music, as if the real experience has to be recent enough to bolster the simulation.
So perhaps music is like vitamin C. We need it, but we need it regularly. Our bodies, or our psyches, don’t absorb and retain it, but it’s essential for our well-being that it’s passing through us. This raises some big questions about music therapy, particularly if we are looking for ‘effects’. If the effects of music itself don’t last, but need to be maintained, then what should music therapy look like? Is it more like asthma medication than antibiotics? Is music an essential balm for the chronic aspects of the human condition? If so, we could never expect music therapy to have good results at, say, six-month follow-up, because it would always have worn off by then. It might instead be about clients learning to use music for themselves, to understand their own relationship to music, so that they can return to it and use it in beneficial ways.
There might be another possibility, that it’s not about the music itself, but about music as a facilitator of relationship. Music simulates pre-verbal communication and thus allows human beings to connect with one another at a deeper level than language. This might help to repair attachments, perhaps. The problem with this is that there are lots of ways to form attachments. Music might assist attachment, but it’s definitely not essential to it. And in any case, as Claire Flower pointed out in her podcast interview, what can we achieve in half an hour a week? Children form positive attachments with other people whom they spend a lot of regular time with, over a long time span; parents, siblings, teachers, teaching assistants, friends, maybe therapists (if they see them for long enough). We might have a real dilemma here. Is it about the music? Is it about relationships? Is it about the interaction between the two? Do we have to choose one of these? You might think I’m being too reductive. Perhaps it’s all just ‘a lot more complicated than that’, or it’s about being holistic, rather than fragmenting these aspects of life into different categories. People, music, relationships; these aren’t things that can be separated out and examined independently. Ok. So why is it called ‘music therapy’ then?