I first asked the question: “so, what exactly is music therapy?” to the wonderful Fran Herman
who I met at Lilith Fair
in 1997. Fran is a Canadian Music Therapy legend and meeting her changed my life. I don’t remember her exact answer but I know what I took away from our conversation at the age of 17: music therapy is helping people through music. I was hooked.
A few years later I was preparing for my audition into the undergraduate music therapy program at Wilfrid Laurier University program when a generous 4th year music therapy student offered some advice. “They’re going to ask you why you want to be a music therapist...”, she began. Okay, I thought, recalling my feelings meeting Fran on that sunny summer afternoon, I can handle that. But then the wise 4th year added, “...and don’t say it’s because you love music and want to help people”. I was in trouble. Helping people through music is why I wanted to be a music therapist. Isn’t that what music therapy is all about?
The following year, in the undergraduate music therapy program, I learned that defining music therapy was a lot more involved that I had initially thought. I read Dr. Kenneth Bruscia’s Defining Music Therapy, a book listing more than 30 definitions of music therapy from around the globe. For example, the Norwegian music therapist, Evan Ruud defined music therapy as: "the use of music to increase possibilities of actions" (Ruud, 1990). The Uruguayan Association for Music Therapy states that: “Music Therapy is a paramedical career of scientific principles which comprises not only therapeutic aspects but also diagnostic and prophylaxis. (...)” (Bruscia, 1984). Our own Canadian Association for Music Therapy
defines music therapy in the following way:
“Music therapy is the skillful use of music and musical elements by an accredited music therapist to promote, maintain, and restore mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Music has nonverbal, creative, structural, and emotional qualities. These are used in the therapeutic relationship to facilitate contact, interaction, self-awareness, learning, self-expression, communication, and personal development. (CAMT website, Information Section)”
Bruscia’s excellent text, and many others, helped me understand that the field and scope of music therapy was much broader, richer and complex than I’d known. It also made explaining what I was studying at school to my relatives over the holidays quite a challenge.
I began practicing music therapy in 2004 and my definition of music therapy became increasingly informed by the people I worked with: the man in long term care who wrote a song to say ‘goodbye’ to his wife; the group of teens with special needs who felt a great sense of pride and accomplishment by playing adapted electric instruments in a rock band; the woman who was experiencing severe depression and was able to express herself on the piano and feel heard. How could one definition of music therapy possibly speak to all these experiences?
As I became drawn to work in mental health I returned to school to complete my graduate degree. I immersed myself in the world of music therapy research, read many qualitative and quantitative studies and completed my first research project. This academic perspective became an important part of my definition of the field.
Upon graduation, I practiced music therapy with a greater depth and understanding. I began focusing primarily on mental and emotional health and wellness in my clinical work. This allowed me to further clarify what music therapy was for me in my work. I found myself defining music therapy with statements that reflect my approach and experience: music therapy allows people to self-express; music therapy facilitates communication in a way that words alone cannot; music therapy promotes creativity; music therapy develops interpersonal skills.
As my work deepens, my definition of music therapy becomes simultaneously narrower and more expansive. On one hand, I define music therapy by explaining aspects of the clinical modality that I happen to draw on primarily in my work. However, there are other music therapists for whom very different statements are indicative of their diverse and equally valuable work in this field.
This brings me to the challenge that I currently face. Recognizing the depth and diversity of the work music therapists do makes defining music therapy a daunting task. I find myself searching for a definition that honours all the people whose lives have been touched through this work, something that connects us all regardless of our approach or experience. And somehow, for me, that original definition I took away on that sunny day when I first learned about music therapy is the one that speaks to the core of my understanding, it’s the definition that encompasses it all: music therapy is helping people through music.
Bruscia, K. (1998). Defining music therapy
. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona.
Ruud, E. (2002). Music as a Cultural Immunogen - Three Narratives on the Use of Music as aTechnology of Health. In I. M. Hanken et. al (Eds.), Research in and for Higher Music Education. Festschrift for Harald Jørgensen
. Oslo: Norwegian Academy of Music 2002:2.