I grew up in Lithuania but spent my higher education years in Scotland. Ever since high school, I was curious about human psychology, and at the same time, I invested my time in learning to play the violin and piano. Luckily, in Scotland, you can study two subjects alongside each other, which is what I did – psychology and music. People often asked me: ‘What are you going to do? Music therapy?’. At this time, I did not know what music therapy was. Like many others, I assumed that music therapy was a wishy-washy intervention based on listening to music to improve one’s health. Little did I know that a few years later, I would rediscover music therapy and qualify as a music therapist myself.
Music has the capacity to affect us on a deep level from our earliest days as babies. Music builds our identity and self-awareness, helps us relate to others, reflect and process our emotions. Stop and think to yourself for a second, what is music to you? Could the pulse of your breath, movement, the tone of voice be considered music? During the music therapy course, I was invited to reflect on what music is through improvising with musical instruments in an unconventional way, singing made-up songs, exploring expressive possibilities of one piano key, musically reflecting on different emotional states, and having musical dialogues with other course mates. It was all in order to challenge our assumptions about what music should sound like and to embrace the innate qualities of music such as expressivity and communication. Through such experimentation, I realised that a single loud beat on a drum or a series of soft notes on the piano reflected and communicated so much about my emotional state on the day: whether I was feeling confident, mischievous, or shy and vulnerable. Fundamentally, music-making offers potential for creativity and playfulness, which can be deeply reflective of our inner worlds. Having said that, to receive music therapy, you do not need to know how to play an instrument. Therefore, music in music therapy serves as a tool for the inner worlds to be communicated and explored across different ages, abilities, and settings.
Much like in other psychological therapies, the relationship between a therapist and a client is the core of music therapy. One of the therapeutic goals is to build a trusting relationship in which the client feels safe and valued, which will give the potential for a positive change on an emotional, cognitive, and behavioural level for the client. Think of it like a group project: no matter how interesting the topic is or how good your means of communication are, it is the level of collaboration, shared understanding of goals, and trustworthiness of all group members that brings the project to life. Similarly, in music therapy, the client and the therapist engage in shared music-making, which reveals certain behavioural patterns, emotional experiences, and underlying psychological processes. These can be explored and worked through in supportive collaboration with a qualified music therapist. Indeed, such a relational approach makes music therapy a psychological clinical intervention that uses music as a therapeutic tool in supporting clients’ psychological, emotional, cognitive, physical, communicative, and social needs.
To give a glimpse of how music therapy works in practice, I would like to share a snippet of my placement work with a young boy in a special needs school. The boy was referred to join a music therapy group due to ‘disruptive behaviour in class’ and ‘difficulty sharing and engaging with classmates’. His presence in the group was very noticeable within the very first few minutes of a session: he played quick and loud bangs on different instruments, including other group members’ instruments, making them move away. His pace was rapid, energetic, and never settling throughout the whole session, which often left me feeling overwhelmed and unable to contain him in the room. After a few weeks of getting to know him and building a relationship, I noticed that he showed a deep curiosity about what was inside of the instruments (the guitar, the violin, the drum) and whether they were ‘good’ or ‘bad’. He also started playing very contrasting music – sometimes sharp, loud, and piercing sounds, sometimes soft, reflective, and slower melodies. It sounded like he was trying to explore human qualities through the instruments.
With the help of clinical supervision, personal reflection, and getting to know the boy and his circumstances, I started to wonder whether he was trying to process his own emotional experiences and define himself by engaging with the instruments. From then on, our musical and verbal conversations focused on reflecting on his sense of self and managing complex emotions such as anger, excitement, and disappointment. By the end, he managed to slow down his pace, engage in longer musical or verbal conversations, and tolerate playing alongside others. This and many other clinical experiences taught me that ‘music’ in music therapy might sound very different from what one might normally describe as ‘music’. What the client communicates through sounds, words, and actions reveals the client’s potential struggles. Exploring these within a supportive therapeutic relationship can lead to development in connection and facilitate change.
That’s just a small glimpse of what music therapy is and how it works, focusing primarily on improvisational and psychodynamically-informed music therapy. However, a lot more could be said, as there are many different approaches to music therapy. For a more in-depth look at the music therapy work, I highly recommend reading M. Pavlicevic’s Music Therapy: Intimate Notes, or checking British Association for Music Therapy website.
Image credit: Freepik
Greta Cydzikaite is a registered music therapist.