“’Music Therapy Helped Me Get Back Doing’: Perspectives of Music Therapy Participants in Mental Health Services”.

“’Music Therapy Helped Me Get Back Doing’: Perspectives of Music Therapy Participants in Mental Health Services”.

As a developing music therapy professional, I am currently immersed in one thing more than anything else: research research research. Music therapy is an evidence-based practice, which means that we as professionals let research inform our work. This way we’re not just randomly playing music to make people feel better, but are actually using music through science-based techniques to accomplish science-based goals. Pretty cool, right?


A lot of the research studies that we use in the field deal largely with concrete, measurable information. For instance: “music therapy as implemented through therapeutic singing decreased pain responses in twenty children”. In other words, a specific, measurable technique is tested on a specific, measurable number of clients to determine whether it has a specific, measurable effect. Now studies like this are good! They ensure that what we are doing as therapists is genuinely effective and useful for our clients (plus the science nerd in me loves them). But it’s also important to integrate research in the form of patient feedback into our work. This is where the “recovery” approach comes in.


According to McCaffrey and Edwards, the “recovery” approach to mental healthcare assumes that the client/patient is the expert on their own condition. Now, this does not mean that a woman with an undiagnosed pain disorder will suddenly be able to tell you every scientific nuance of dysfunction in her cells at a molecular level. But it does recognize that she knows better than anybody else what she’s going through: what her pain is like, how her emotional state is affected by her disorder, etc. No matter how much anybody else may know scientifically about her disorder, when it comes to the actual perceptual experience, she is the expert.


Assuming this approach, McCaffrey and Edwards conducted a series of interviews with music therapy patients in the mental health unit of a hospital in Ireland to examine patient perspectives of the music therapy experience. The results were as vast as they were fascinating. Many patients praised music therapy’s adaptability and flexibility. They emphasized that music therapy gave them a means of communicating, that it empowered them, that it changed their self-perception. One patient even rediscovered his love for playing guitar, an activity that he had turned away from at the onset of his illness.


But what really interested me was the report of patient perspectives that would have never been reported in a clinical, purely objective study. One patient indicated that music therapy was initially “daunting” to her due to her sensitivities to drumming and loud noises. Another reported that her reactions were elicited not from the auditory stimulus of the music, but from the visual input of the instruments themselves.


These last two perspectives indicate variables that could significantly skew the results of more number-based, concrete studies. For example, in a study that looked only at measurable behaviors, the first patient may have been perceived as a poor candidate for music therapy, when in reality she was only adverse to overwhelming auditory stimuli and required adaptation on the part of the therapist. Similarly, for the patient who responded better to visual stimulus, it might be important for her therapist to take into consideration the visual layout of the instruments before proceeding with a session to ensure maximum patient benefit.


In going forward, I wonder if it would not be more beneficial for future research studies to integrate measurable behaviors with personal interviews to ensure a holistic, multidimensional understanding of client needs and responses to music therapy. One of the beautiful things about music therapy, and just music in general, is that it integrates the scientific and the artistic, the tangible and the intangible. And if we are treating the whole self, the whole client, maybe our research should seek to understand both the tangible and intangible aspects of the client’s experiences.


Citation: McCaffrey, R., and Edwards, J. (2016).“’Music Therapy Helped Me Get Back Doing’: Perspectives of Music Therapy Participants in Mental Health Services”. Journal of Music Therapy, 53(2). 121-148.


Claire Morison

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