Rima Jakubauskas and Laura Pearce introduce us to music therapy.
Music therapy has been a profession in the UK since the 1960s, and it’s related to other creative and play-based psychotherapies. When people ask me about music therapy, I tell them that when people play music together, we use the same basic social skills that are used in many other areas of life: sharing, turn-taking, eye contact, listening, and waiting. Music-making can be very self-expressive. Our moods, feelings, and personalities can be expressed through music. Importantly, music doesn’t rely on speech and language, which means that nonverbal people can access music therapy.
A music therapy room will have many easy-to-play instruments, such as drums, percussion, xylophones, and recorders. We therapists are also trained musicians and may use a specialist instrument in a session, such as a keyboard, guitar, or clarinet. The participants are encouraged to explore the different instruments and their sounds. This musical exploration leads to creating spontaneous songs. Therapists may also use familiar songs like nursery rhymes or pop songs in sessions. Music therapy is used to achieve therapeutic goals, such as using music to encourage communication, improve clients’ focus, build social skills, encourage play, and using music to support clients’ mental wellbeing and build confidence.
Clients can be referred to small groups or individual therapy. One group that we offer is a specialist music therapy group for children with Autism and their parents. These groups can be based in schools or in the community, and children always attend with a parent or family member. Sessions often include hello and goodbye songs; musical games; playing instruments; and singing and signing familiar songs using Makaton. The therapeutic aims are to build children’s communication skills, encourage social interaction between all group members, and they offer a place for parents to meet, socialise, and support each other. One parent told us, ‘My son asks for music time nearly every day… He’s using the Hello and Goodbye songs to say goodbye and greet people. Music is great for calming him and he constantly smiles through the group’.
While group music therapy can provide a space for many clients to interact, attending individual sessions means that a client gets 100% of the therapist’s focus and the session is based solely on that client’s needs.
A young boy with Autism was referred for music therapy because of difficulty regulating his emotions in a mainstream school setting and to support his communication and social skills. At first, he would hide under a table. Rather than try to change this behaviour, I responded to it by creating a hide-and-seek song. When he wanted to stomp his feet on the floor, I stomped around in a circle with him, creating a fun song for him to join in with. Gradually he started to trust me and initiate more playful interactions. As our relationship grew, we started using puppets to support his speech and as a safe way to explore feelings. Music and play have helped him find ways to communicate and identify feelings, and this means he is calmer and more regulated at school.
We also see a young adult living in residential care. The client has Battens disease, a genetic neuro-degenerative disease which causes early onset dementia, sight loss, and a shortened life expectancy. This client is highly motivated by music, especially singing. It helps reduce her anxiety and helps her concentration. Performing her favourite songs also supports her self-expression. It is important that I match her mood and energy level in our music. I have observed her initial anxiety dissipate as she begins to recognise the music and start to sing, and the trust she has in our relationship means she can become playful and expressive, knowing that I am there to support her. This client embodies music’s ability to support our mental health and wellbeing through encouraging playful, expressive, interactions in a supportive space.