This blog entry was inspired by a chat that I recently has with a music therapy colleague, which then carried over into a discussion with and occupational speech therapist. I would be interested in knowing your thoughts….

What is indigenous (and intrinsic) to music therapy? What do we offer, as MTs, that is unique and specific to our medium and discipline? And, are we, as MTs, clinically utilizing those very things that are specific to only music and music therapy in our clinical work and writing, such as aesthetics and the relational properties that are unique to music making. Or, are we simply using the byproducts of music?- This would be the equivalent to using a book as a door stop, a sculpture as a paperweight, music as “white noise”, a painting to hide a hole in the wall, etc.

Do we use music as a motivator? Is that unique to MT?

Do we use music because it’s non-threatening (is it really always non-threatening??) way to work with clients? Is being non-threatening really unique to only music therapy?

Do we use music for non-musical goals, such as speech, physical, etc.? is that unique to MT?

Is using music unique to what music has to offer??





8 responses »

  1. Absolutely, Absolutely, Absolutely! When the Rett syndrome little girl who has lost her speech comes in the room fairly motionless except for her hand wringing , and as the music starts and she begins to kick her feet, giggle and vocalize i, it was absolutely the music that motivated her! It was the beat, the tempo and the brightness of chords that resonated with her and motivated her to move her feet and shout! It was all the elements combined well in the music that motivated her !
    I suppose Music could be threatening if not applied in a non- threatening way. I think possibly other therapies could be non-threatening depending on who and how they are being applied. However, I think it is an easier job for a Music Therapist to watch a client and follow their behavior with our tool.
    I love this question. I often work with non-verbal clients. Their initial goals may be music based, ex; imitating an interval. However speech doesn’t start with words. The speech therapist and I may be shooting for the same thing but I usually find my initial music based goals will continue to change and develop until the client is ready for a letter sound or word.
    I think that using music is unique. It is in changing, altering or modifying musical elements to achieve a non-musical purpose, to personalize the method to fit the client that makes it unique and such a good motivator!
    Antoinette Morrison

  2. Brian Abrams says:

    Excellent post/questions.

    I do believe the core of our work as music therapists should be anchored in the core essence of discipline, which (to me) means a musical understanding of health and the processes of health promotion. I do not believe that which music therapists have uniquely to offer consists of the capacity to “use” music in any way, such as in the capacity of a “tool” that “motivates” so-called “non-musical” health development. From my point of view, music is not a thing to “use” at all. It is, essentially, useless–just as life is (Santayana). We don’t prize our very being because it is useful, do we? Likewise, the value of music does not lie in how useful it is for non-musical ends.

    But some argue that in music therapy, that is exactly what we do: Using music as a tool for non-musical purposes. Yet, if this is so, then we are demonstrating John’s point about mobilizing the “incidental” qualities of music. Why music, specifically, as a means to achieve these non-musical ends? What’s so special about music as a means? If merely a motivator, then why not cookies or juice instead? Why not kind words of praise? Why not redeemable tokens within a reward micro-economy? Are all of the unique properties of music just a very effective form of cookie, or praise, or token?

    I honestly can’t see music being a particularly strong external motivator. It’s neither always pleasurable, nor always non-threatening, as is the case for any art form. While Berlyne and others locate the meaning of music in its hedonic value, I would argue that human-musical health is a self-motivating process. Aesthetics is not merely superficial pleasure or preference for one stimulus over another within a brief time frame. And when the time frame is more lengthy, it is not simply delayed gratification. Music can remain valuable and meaningful even without any big “denouement” or “pay off” that takes some non-musical form. Thus, being about pleasure or about being non-threatening cannot be what music therapy has uniquely to offer.

    So then what IS so special about music? Perhaps, at least from a clinical perspective, it can be understood as something that doesn’t motivate the non-musical, but rather something that is self-motivating…specifically, as a dimension of our being itself that strives for ever deeper, ever greater, musicality. This being-musical can, itself, be understood as health. Of course, it often needs help along the way, due to the myriad ways in which a person’s music can get stuck, hurt, lost, etc. Herein lies the unique role of the music therapist, who, through skillful ways of being with the client musically, helps provide opportunities for the client to develop her/his human musicality throughout all relevant domains of her/his health. This way of understanding music and music therapy preserves the necessary role of the client’s agency in the process: That which gets “used” is not music, by the therapist, to have it impact in some way upon the client-as-object; but rather, opportunities, by the client, afforded in the context of the clinical-musical relationship.

    • Brian Abrams says:

      …Correction: Core essence of THE discipline…

    • Keith Botello, MMT, MT-BC says:

      So, everyone is musical and what is unique to music therapists is that we recognize this (innate musicality) and are highly skilled musician therapists.

      What is unique to music is that it is music.


      – Keith

      • Brian Abrams says:

        Right, Keith.

        I do believe it’s important to clarify that our innate musicality is like our innate humanity–it develops throughout our lives in various ways, gets stuck, hurt, lost, etc., and thus needs help. The music therapist’s way of helping deals specifically with the musical dimension of humanity.

        Moreover, to avert “circularity” in how I am choosing to define music–I would say music is unique as the temporal-aesthetic-relational dimension of humanity.


  3. Michelle Lasco MT-BC says:

    As someone who has worked in a medical environment (children’s oncology) there were many “threatening” things around. I suppose having a guitar instead of a needle worked to my advantage, but its so much more than being the warm fuzzy music lady. The holding environment that I could provide for those children before, during, and after their procedures was unique to music! What else is time sensitive and changeable according to the clients needs? I would be lost with out my music in that situation! I agree that music isn’t always non-threatening. In fact it can be very intimate for some, maybe too intimate! Music is incredibly powerful. Is it a tool we “use” ? I think there are elements with in the music we can manipulate for various clinical reasons. I can and will take on a larger life of its own with in the context of a musical therapeutic relationship.

  4. I do not see music as an external motivator. That is what makes it different from cookies or juice. The elements of music are intrinsically motivating. The rhythms of our body, of external time can be brought together using (breaking apart or putting together the elements in a new way) . to fit an individuals needs. Yes, a self-motivating process. That I think makes Music Therapists different . Others may use music which indeed helps the process. I agree , the music therapists ‘s way of helping deals specifically with the musical dimension of health.

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