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What is Music Therapy?

Is Music Therapy Just Making Music? Paul Nordoff and Clive Robbins only worked with children. When Gary Ansdell published ‘Music for Life’ in 1995, some Nordoff Robbins music therapists had started working with adults as well, but there was little literature discussing or recording their work. ‘Music for Life’ was written to fill that gap.

Is Music Therapy Just Making Music?

Paul Nordoff and Clive Robbins only worked with children. When Gary Ansdell published ‘Music for Life’ in 1995, some Nordoff Robbins music therapists had started working with adults as well, but there was little literature discussing or recording their work. ‘Music for Life’ was written to fill that gap. It combines comprehensive thoughtfulness with clarity, and remains to this day a significant statement and expansion of the core principles underlying Nordoff Robbins music therapy.

The book’s chapters alternate between case studies from the work of different music therapists and reflections on wider issues and ideas. Throughout the book Ansdell is suspicious of attempts to justify or explain music therapy through other disciplines such as medicine or psychotherapy. He prefers to describe music therapy in musical terms, raising the question with which he begins the book – is music therapy just making music?

Music for Life

‘What exactly are we doing here?’ asked a client recently at the beginning of a first session – adding helpfully, ‘I don’t expect an answer! … but, I mean, are we just making music?’ Though at the time I took the invitation no to give a long explanation, much of this book is an attempt to give him an answer and to explain, moreover, how this answer can be both ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
An outside observer of our session may well have concluded that we were indeed ‘just making music’ – remarking that two people were both playing instruments and seemed to be communicating, even enjoying themselves. Were our observer, however, to ask both players why they were there, then she would find out something more: that the context and the expectations of the music-making were not the conventional ones of our society. Indeed, rather than the players describing themselves just as musicians who enjoyed playing together, one referred to himself as ‘therapist’ and the other as ‘client’.
Adult clients usually come to a music therapist (or are referred) because of a belief that music therapy involves something more than making music. Yet even the title of the profession can lead to confusions. ‘Music therapy’ is both alike and unlike other helping professions such as physiotherapy, speech therapy or psychotherapy. With each of these it is quite clear where the therapeutic effort is directed: to the speech, body or (admittedly not so comfortably) the psyche. Music therapy is, however, clearly a different case. Quite simply, how does the music relate to the therapy?

Based on your own experience and what you have read here, how would you answer Ansdell’s final question: ‘how does the music relate to the therapy?’

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An Introduction to the Nordoff Robbins approach to Music Therapy

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