How the Piano Can Serve as a Tool for Healing

 Amir, D. (2004). Giving trauma a voice: the role of improvisational music therapy in exposing,

dealing with and healing a traumatic experience of sexual abuse. Music Therapy

Perspectives, 22(2), 96-103.


I’ve reviewed a journal article previously that discussed domestic violence, and how music therapy in a group setting can improve the coping mechanisms of women who have been exposed to domestic violence (Teague, A.K., Hahna, N. D., et al., 2006). I want to broaden that category in today’s review, and expand to adults and children who have experienced sexual abuse. Did you know that sexual abuse is one of the most common traumatic events that occurs all over the world, cross cultures, and in all periods of time? (Amir, D., 2004). Child sexual abuse alone has increased dramatically in the past 20 years, and Forward estimates that there are 60 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse in America alone (2003). The nature of a trauma is that it is lasting, it is a wound that does not heal easily, and it is a wound that cannot be easily shared with others. Many survivors cope with  trauma in a way that is damaging, such as repressing the trauma leading to numbing of their inner life (Whitfield, 1995). So what can be done to help these children, these adults who have carried this trauma since childhood? We turn to music therapy for an answer.

Amir states that music therapy can play an important role in exposing, dealing with, and healing the trauma (2004). The role of the music therapist in this situation is to prepare the right conditions that will allow the clients to have meaningful moments, that will ultimately bring about healing. Since music gives us direct access to emotions and past experiences, it is the perfect medium for creating a safe environment for the clients to begin to deal with their sexual trauma. It gives insight to the client’s unconscious world, and begins to uncover those repressed feelings (such as anger, helplessness, shame) and convert them into a creative energy that can empower the client. This is where improvisational techniques play an important role.

The article then presents a case study of a 32 year old single woman. She summarized her childhood as happy, filled with love and affection. Into adulthood, she had aversions to being intimate with a partner, and began to feel isolated from her friend group, who were all married. She played piano, and the therapist decided to meet with her once a week. For 8 months, Amir and the client played improvisational games on the piano, or did other improvisational activities. The therapist could tell where the client was at emotionally based on her attitude towards improvising. For example, if the client wanted to just stick to the classical book and not deviate, that showed a sense of insecurity, closure of emotions, and fear. However, through these 8 months of seemingly no progress, the client suddenly had a flashback of a repressed sexual memory during a session. After this event occurred, the music therapy sessions turned into exploring those memories on the piano, allowing the client to “play her childhood” at her own pace. This stage of therapy brought about more repressed memories of other similar traumas, and allowed the client to process them in a way that was safe and familiar to her (on the piano). After two years of music therapy, the client felt ready to begin playing other instruments, and the therapist was there for her to do so. Outside of therapy, the client also found a meaningful relationship with a man, and started having more of a social life.

While this is just a case study, it shows the possibility of improvisational music therapy and its way of healing such a difficult life event. The power of human creativity is unleashed when given the right medium, and it can empower a person to overcome any life circumstance.

Image credit: Flickr user MaltaGirl