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Challenging assumptions about how music helps

Times are changing. When I first became a music therapist more than 22 years ago, most of the general public had never even heard of my profession. When people asked me what I did for a living, some were curious and wanted to know more, while others looked at me as if I were selling snake oil. Nowadays, these conversations are slightly different. Although it is still not always well understood as a profession, more people are familiar with the term “music therapy” and open to the idea that music and other creative mediums may be used to promote health and well-being. Overall, I believe this is a positive development, especially if it means that more people, in all types of circumstances, can access and engage in quality music experiences that will help them to reach their full potential for living well.

However, the “miraculous” effects of music as featured in popular media along with the widely accepted notion that music is a “universal” medium can lead to false generalizations and over-simplification of how music can and should be used in healthcare or other psychosocial contexts. This can be especially problematic when one is using music with compromised individuals who are unable or hesitant (for various reasons) to communicate their personal music practices and preferences. For example, I have observed “relaxation” music being played on a continuous loop for a palliative care patient lying alone in her room or hymns being sung to a person with late stage dementia who was not of the Christian faith. No matter how well–intentioned we are, we cannot determine what music will be helpful or desirable for a particular individual or community according to our own embedded musical assumptions (i.e., imposing what we think is helpful based solely on our own personal experiences of and beliefs about the medium).

Like other counseling professionals, music therapists are expected to become aware of their own values, biases, and assumptions, and practice in ways that are sensitive to the life experiences and cultural values of their clients. Recently, I served as a guest editor for the Music Therapy Perspectives journal, which published a special-focus volume on multicultural musical competence in music therapy. This concept goes well beyond learning music or playing instruments from various cultures but is also “a way of practicing that requires ongoing re-conceptualization according to each clinical case/client, music therapist, therapeutic relationship, and social-political-cultural-musical context.”

Education Minister John O’Dowd with music therapist, Jenny Kirkwood and pupil Tessa Martin at the official opening of new facilities for Tor Bank School in Dundonald. Image by Northern Ireland Executive. CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

As a Canadian music therapy educator, I teach students who come from distinct cultural communities within Canada as well as from many other countries. This brings a welcome range of musical diversity to my clinical improvisation course. In addition to developing various musical skills and competencies, I also encourage students to engage in self-reflective processes where they examine their own musical identities and relationships to music. By identifying and working through their own musical assumptions and biases, they can become more comfortable in learning how to work with clients who have musical tastes and understandings that are markedly different from their own–clients they might have actually avoided working with otherwise, or worked with in a way that they assumed to be the “right” way.

For example, not all elderly persons want to hear “golden oldies” and not all Chinese persons want to hear traditional Chinese music. Furthermore, when foraying into the territory of another person’s music, one must be prepared to deal with a range of complex emotional responses, which may or may not align with how one might expect that person to respond. What may seem a song of happiness for you may be a song of sadness for another. Self-reflective processes can also help music therapy students to gain increased insight into when it is appropriate to share (rather than impose) aspects of one’s musical self to facilitate therapeutic relationship. Finally, I have also found that these processes can lead to authentic experiences of cross-cultural musical sharing both within and outside of class.

Music is not an inexpensive “one size fits all” miracle cure (that sounds suspiciously like snake oil to me and current research cannot support this claim). However, it is a powerful creative medium that, when used with skill, sensitivity, knowledge, and personal insight, has the capacity to address the diverse complexities of the human condition in unique and transformative ways.

Featured image credit: music sheets by Patrick Pilz. CC0 Public Domain via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Antonio Robateau

    Of course! :-)

    Music can evoke memories, lyrics can provoke thought, genres can be associated with stereotypes, and all of that in good and bad ways. Music appreciation is also subjective and very personal. If a song played loudly for two people at the same time, when it is played years later one person may become happy recalling that he had won a competition, while the same song makes the other sad or upset recalling how he had lost to the other person. A picture has no sound, but a human memory includes what we saw, heard, felt, tasted, etc. Christmas music, for example makes me feel or want to feel cold. Hearing christmas music while hot and sticky would make me upset and even more uncomfortable.

    I have, however, found that melodic, dynamic and non-jarring instrumental music produces pleasant moods in most people, especially when they have never heard it before and must concentrate by actively listening while being delighted with what they are hearing fir the first time. In that case, there are no prior memories to interfere with its appreciation, I am creating a memory.

  2. Jorge Arévalo Mateus

    Music Therapy, as a discipline, would do well to explore global jukebox.org. It presents more than 6000 songs from world cultures and through a system known as cantometrics provides significant insights about social behavior across cultures. Not as “universals”, but as indices of human expression. It could be useful!

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