Music in mind


How music therapy can provide a vital form of expression for troubled pupils  

It’s 9.30am and most classrooms are settling down to quiet work. Out of one room though, a steady stream of sound can be heard: determined drumming matched by intense piano playing and the exchange of vocal sounds that wouldn’t generally be called singing. There is a sense of concentration, interaction and expression all happening at once. 

Later in the day, this room will witness some very different sounds. At one stage, very quiet, intimate singing will be heard, while at the end of the day, a boisterous group will summon all of their social skills to play together, listen to each other and support one another. What’s remarkable about all of this though, is not so much the sounds themselves as the fact that the students producing them are those who might ordinarily be considered the least able to do so. This is music therapy and the school’s music therapist is not just jamming with the students, even though it may sound like that sometimes; she is very deliberately using music as a means of offering students experiences they might otherwise find hard to access – experiences which will ultimately help them to benefit more from the school’s educational offering.

The determined drumming comes from Lauren, a young girl with elective mutism. Socially isolated, in music therapy she can experiment with being loud and expressing herself. The therapist joins in, supporting Lauren’s loudness, encouraging her to keep going and helping her to experience this not just as making noise but as meaningful communication with a sense of purpose, shape and direction. Lauren may not realise it but the therapist is accompanying her with harmonic structure, which lends a clear sense of direction to the activity. When she returns to her classroom, the teacher notices Lauren being more alert and more involved. Sometimes, after music therapy she will even risk saying something – a big deal to everyone who knows her.

The quiet intimate singing comes from Peter. Often labelled “disruptive”, he’s known for shouting and swearing and generally causing mayhem. He has a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), as well as learning difficulties, and his behaviour is challenging. In music therapy, though, he has found someone who really listens to him and responds not so much to his words as to his way of being. This has enabled him to be much more vulnerable. Sometimes he seems to regress to a much earlier developmental stage, wanting to sing nursery rhymes and improvising made-up songs with the therapist who joins him encouragingly, much as a parent might do with a toddler. The sessions seem to strengthen his sense of self and teachers note that he is often calmer after sessions, with a steady improvement also noticeable over the time he has been attending music therapy.

The group at the end of the day brings together children from various year groups. They all have difficulty with waiting their turn or listening to others. Many have a diagnosis of autism and they find it hard to do things on others’ terms. This time the music therapist is using structured songs and specially arranged musical activities to help the students to maintain their focus and wait their turns. Watching the students, a teaching assistant comments on how attentive they are: “You’d never believe it if you didn’t see it for yourself”.

What is music therapy?

Music therapy is an opportunity for people to make and improvise music with a music therapist. This might sound an odd thing to prioritise, and for schools to invest precious budget into, but the very fact that music is such a different way of interacting than using words makes it particularly useful for many children with SEN. The examples above demonstrate how certain aspects of music – such as its capacity to allow an individual to really experience someone listening to them and quite literally accompanying them – can provide experiences which are very different from the everyday experiences of students, and which can help them to interact differently with the world around them. Much of this comes down to what it is that we as human beings go through when we are making music with other people. In music making, we have a very different experience of time, of waiting and of anticipating. Whether or not we are aware of it, our consciousness and our sense of what is possible is shaped by aspects of the music itself – by structure, phrasing, harmony, rhythm and melody. A music therapist therefore needs to know what this feels like and to be able to apply this musical knowledge to an understanding of the specific situations of the students they are working with. One size clearly does not fit all. The kinds of experience which will be useful to someone who finds it difficult to control emotional outbursts will be very different from those required to support and affirm a student with profound and multiple learning difficulties.

Before any new experiences can be shared though, it is necessary to engage the student musically. This is based on really listening to how someone is presenting themselves and offering a way of being with this in a meaningfully musical way. This means that music therapy sessions can generate music which is sometimes (to an outside observer) surprisingly noisy, dissonant or relentless. This is how the therapist builds a musical working partnership with each person and learns about their strengths and abilities, not just their deficits or diagnoses. It is by building on these characteristics and well as students’ enthusiasms and tastes that the music therapist will begin to plan ways of working which are meaningful and useful to each person.

What’s the difference between music therapy and music teaching?

Music teachers have a responsibility to deliver a curriculum and children are expected to learn specific skills or knowledge as outcomes of the teaching. Music therapists, on the other hand, are able to tailor their time with particular students to the individual needs of those students. Instead of curriculum delivery, there is an expectation that the therapy should help students to develop their capacity to benefit from the school’s offering as a whole. Thus learning to listen, to be more self-expressive, to regulate oneself, to catch up in particular areas of development or to make use of a paralysed limb will all in the long run enable a student to participate more fully in, and contribute more actively to, the life of the school.

Music therapy and music teaching, working together, can develop a spectrum of musical provision within each school which ranges from formal academic tuition to intense emotional support, tailoring opportunities that best meet the needs of each individual student as well as those of whole classes, were appropriate.

Training to be a music therapist

Music therapy as a profession is regulated in the UK by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), along with other professions often found in schools, including occupational therapy, physiotherapy and speech and language therapy. The HCPC sets standards for training courses and only people who have successfully completed a two-year full-time (or part-time equivalent) masters programme approved by the HCPC can practise as a music therapist in the UK. Training courses recruit musicians and equip them with the practical skills, knowledge and understanding required for responsible and effective practice as a music therapist. Once qualified, music therapists can work across a wide range of settings, but schools remain one of the primary work settings for music therapists, not least because liaising with teachers and other school staff is so valuable to the work. It is also important for music therapists to be able to see students in their everyday school settings outside of music therapy, for example, in the classroom.

Individual and group work

Music therapy can happen in individual sessions, but music therapists also work with groups of various sizes, and there are good reasons why this should be so. For example, the group described above gives students who find social situations challenging experiences of handling these situations successfully and with confidence. Sometimes, it is appropriate for a music therapist to work with a whole class as a group session, and this might well include opportunities for teachers and teaching assistants to see their students in a different light, often appreciating strengths that are less obvious in a teaching context.

Sometimes, music therapists will judge it appropriate to work with some students towards performances, for example at school events or within assemblies.

Whole-school benefits

While there are certainly benefits for individual students from music therapy, there are also benefits to the school as a whole. Music therapists are skilled in observing and interacting with each person’s way of being and can provide perspectives which complement those of teaching staff, in relation to such things as problem behaviours or communication issues. They are also used to managing and responding to complex interpersonal dynamics.

Music therapists may be able to help particular students contribute to school events, or even help to organise such events. They may work with music teachers to ensure that all musical opportunities within the school are as inclusive as possible. Above all, they will seek to help the whole school to take musical opportunities that arise, whether this is in relation to particular students, whole classes or the staff group.

Music therapists might also work with staff groups in the school, for example, setting up lunchtime staff choirs or ukulele bands; indeed, many schools report that these kinds of activities are valuable ways of providing nurturing for the professionals who themselves give so much care to the students in schools.

The evidence for music therapy

There is growing evidence in the medical sense for the effectiveness of music therapy in relation to particular conditions, such as autism and emotional and behavioural difficulties. For a relatively small profession, music therapy has been particularly proactive in conducting and publishing research. There are fewer accounts of the impact of music therapy services on schools as a whole, though, and this is the focus of a current stream of work being undertaken by the charity Nordoff Robbins, attempting to document the ways in which music therapy makes a difference to wider school communities.

While there is still work to be done to understand the effects of music therapy in schools, the benefits of this type of therapy for students and the whole school seem clear. As one headteacher says, “I thought music therapy would help a few of our students. In fact it affects every student and every member of staff in some way or other.”

Further information

Simon Procter is Director of Music Services at Nordoff Robbins, the UK’s largest music therapy charity, with responsibility for education, research and quality assurance:

Information on music therapy and how to train as a music therapist can be found on the website of the British Association for Music Therapy:

Simon Procter
Author: Simon Procter

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