Part I: Composition in Music Therapy
If you are working actively in music therapy sessions, spontaneously creating music with your clients, then you are likely already composing. You're using elements of your musical craft to create themes, harmonic progressions, or musical forms that support clients and move them toward greater well-being. Clinical composition is one aspect of "clinical musicianship", a term defined by Nordoff and Robbins in the following way:
Simply put, in composing music for therapy, we focus our musical creativity on the therapeutic needs of our clients while remaining sensitive to what in music will engage them.
There are various ways in which we can compose for therapy. All are valid ways of working:
Composition "in-the-moment": Spontaneous musical improvisation (in session) in which you create a musical vehicle, in a fully-realized form, which captures the needs/actions/feelings of your client.
Compositions developed from previously improvised Ideas: Particular motifs emerging in sessions, such as a melody, a certain style, or an engaging rhythm, can be notated afterwards and developed more fully outside of sessions.
Composing completely "on your own": Writing music entirely outside of a session, with your client’s process, character, clinical needs and preferences in mind. Composition naturally involves improvising or creating ideas vocally or instrumentally; recording and/or notating it; and then developing the idea over time, outside of sessions.
My focus in this course (as well as in Course II) will be on the third approach—the value of introducing goal-directed compositions to clients and the process of composing instrumental pieces "on your own."
Music therapists traditionally use familiar, pre-composed songs and activities in sessions. Similarly, clinical compositions that we craft ourselves can become a dependable facet of the therapy process, providing consistency and satisfaction for the client from week to week.
When we offer pre-composed music containing specific opportunities for playing or singing, we are entering into what Kenneth Bruscia calls a “Re-Creative” aspect of music making (Bruscia, 2014). Inviting a client to participate in instrumental music possessing special parts for various levels of participation can provide positive challenges and a sense of accomplishment if done with sensitivity to the relationship and clinical process. Some clients may be unable to enter into musical activity on their own, and a facilitated piece can help guide them. Importantly, the use of specially composed and facilitated instrumental pieces can serve as an important step in those individuals them towards a greater ability to express and improvise through music.
Throughout this course I wish to emphasize the following principles and core values of clinical composition as I see them:
Specially crafted compositions can enhance opportunities for musical involvement, expression and interaction.
The use of Clinical Composition can facilitate growth in specific and sometimes unexpected goal areas.
Equal consideration of both the musical and clinical makeup of compositions is vital in order to bring clients a satisfying, motivating and clinically effective experience.
Awareness of and attention to all facets of music by the music therapist can lead to a parallel process of creative engagement for you and your client. What this can bring is truly the unique offering of music therapy.
The following example illustrates one way in which a pre-composed instrumental piece was integrated into music therapy sessions. I worked with an adolescent boy whose family encouraged him to begin therapy because of his deep interest in music. Intelligent and highly verbal, he was born with cerebral palsy, and his physical challenges led him to be especially self-conscious and withdrawn during this time in his life.
I anticipated that therapy goals would eventually include: 1) developing relationship and confidence through musical play, as well as 2) increasing the ability to express his feelings musically and/or verbally. As sessions went on, however, he seemed guarded and expressed very little personally, verbally or musically. He usually entered the room with headphones on, listening to rap music in order to, as stated by him, "shut everyone out.” Around this time, I composed an instrumental piece, “Lydian Dream” with parts for triangle, metallophone, and reed horn. The music requires simple responses but offers enrichment through a variety of timbres and the particular tonality.
When I introduced "Lydian Dream" in session, the client was open to participating and seemed to feel an immediate affinity for the musical-emotional atmosphere of the piece. He concentrated and played the instrumental parts with care. After a period of silence, and a visible change of mood, he opened up verbally about his difficulties. In this instance, the composition offered a musical experience which seemed to touch on feelings he tried to avoid but needed to express. Creating or offering such music is just one of the ways in which composition can enrich the therapy process for our clients.
Historical Context and Clinical Rationale for Integrating Composition in Music Therapy
As a young musician and psychology major exploring the field of music therapy, I was fortunate to come upon the work of Paul Nordoff and Clive Robbins. Their creative, improvisational approach to individual music therapy beginning in 1959 had a significant influence on my career and life. So too, their compositions created for the special classroom setting in which they first worked together were inspiring and unlike anything I expected to hear. (See Part IV Resources for texts on the Nordoff-Robbins music therapy approach).
Creative depth and attention to musical detail are evident throughout their recorded clinical work, books and compositions for therapy. As I wrote in “The Primacy of Music and Musical Resources in Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy,”
This music originated from the synergy of Nordoff’s sophisticated musical palette, Robbins’ intuition and wealth of experience in special education, and the particular needs of each child. (Please note: While most of their writing refers to “children” or “students”, the ideas are applicable to all age groups.)
Musical forms—whether improvised or fully pre-composed—encouraged emotional engagement and positive focus as, through them, the team facilitated a process of creative work in a musical community. The practice of offering musical pieces with special instrumental parts enabled Nordoff & Robbins’ students to become music makers. They learned to handle instruments, developed the ability to play with expressive flexibility, shared musical activity, and through this gained new developmental skills.
In Defining Music Therapy: 3rd Edition, (2014) Bruscia describes some of the demands involved in re-creating music in general.
Bruscia goes on to describe the implications for integrating compositions in music therapy sessions.
In clinical composition, parts can be written that enable a certain degree of success and also of challenge. It is important to note that, in a music therapy context, the work of mastering a piece of music is viewed as a gradual musical/therapeutic process. Clients will require time to grasp, internalize and participate fully. Attention must be paid to how the client is relating to the overall experience and, as in all our work, it is crucial to remain sensitive to the balance of creative and interpersonal process.
Musical Content and Its Impact on Therapy
In 1971 Nordoff & Robbins wrote Music Therapy in Special Education, currently in its second edition published by Barcelona Publishers, who has kindly granted permission to share content from several sources. Throughout the book the authors remind us of the very heart of music, the art in the practice of music therapy. The book is filled with practical musical wisdom, including chapters on singing, instrumental activities, and musical plays. Whatever your client population or music therapy approach, there are likely ideas in their books that can enrich your practice.
Consider the context of their work: a very early period in our field, a time of exploration into what music therapy could be, and the presence of proscribed views of music for children.
The team boldly advocated for providing the same musical richness in therapy with children that any of us would desire in the various musical contexts of our lives. One aspect which they emphasized is the use of harmony.
In Music Therapy in Special Education, the traditional “Here We Go 'Round the Mulberry Bush” is used as an example of a popular children's song, in a major diatonic tonality, that is often played with 2 primary chords, I and V in root position, as in the following:
Now listen and play Example 2 offered by Nordoff & Robbins (p.31) which provides a different musical experience with added tones and inversions. If you are playing on a guitar, work to use the same harmonies and inversions as the piano score. (Please note that the roman numerals in mm.1 and 7 for the II7 chords omit the inversions, but please play as written.)
Nordoff and Robbins continued to write about the impact of harmony as well as melody in their later book, Creative Music Therapy: A Guide to Fostering Clinical Musicianship (Second Edition, 2007, Barcelona Publishers).
Here is one more example of the traditional song you played earlier. It contains more quickly changing and sometimes unpredictable harmonies, as well as more dissonance. Play, and consider the various experiences these variations create in you.
We have just touched upon some of the basic components of music, involving tonality (Eb Major), chords (content, position, spacing of tones), and chord progressions. Our choices as music therapists are broad. With awareness, we can work to bring creative contrasts to our compositions and improvisations. Expressive elements such as rhythm, tempo and timbre are just some of the additional ways we can convey musical meaning and motivate engagement in therapy. While it is not possible to touch in depth on every element of music in this course, it’s valuable to visualize the musical palette available to us. In this way we can stay conscious of our many options as composers (and improvisers) and avoid limiting the music for our clients.
Basic Musical Components
Tones, Intervals, Melody
Scales, Modes, Idioms
Chords—their content, and the position and spacing of tones
Phrase structure & Musical Form
Tempo & Dynamics
Rhythm & Meter
Character or Mood
Let's focus for a moment on the expressive variations of Rhythm and Tempo that we can consider in writing a composition. What kinds of musical experience would be constructive for a particular person with whom you are working? Consider how you might compose in order to encourage greater attention and interaction.
- Will the client or group benefit by learning to organize themselves through a musical piece that highlights the basic beat or pulse?
- Is there an individual who would be intrigued by imitating a rhythmic idea in response to one played by the therapist?
- Contrasts of slow and fast tempos might be captivating.
- To enhance the experience, perhaps the distinct timbres of drum and cymbal would be engaging.
- Playing along with the natural rhythms of sung lyrics (melodic rhythm) might bring clarity to the experience, and encourage confidence.
We can base a composition, in any scale, mode or idiom, on those expressive frames. As Nordoff & Robbins write, in Creative Music Therapy,
As we begin to create a composition, we assess a client’s present level of functioning and consider the next steps in his development, determining what musical elements would help achieve these.
We’ll focus on additional musical elements through the study of several compositions in “Musical Examples and Analyses” Section II.
Using Compositions in Music Therapy Sessions
In the introductory section of Themes for Therapy: New Songs and Instrumental Pieces, editors Michele Ritholz and Clive Robbins describe the practice of composing, and the impact of this music on clients:
Additionally, experience has shown that while we may compose a piece for a specific person, it may very well be effective with a different individual.
The use of instrumental compositions enhanced the music therapy group process with 3 lively children ages 5-7. Two of the boys were diagnosed with PDD (pervasive developmental disorder) and the third boy coped with a rare condition which led to malformations of his skull, impaired vision and and decreased hearing. Despite individual challenges, each child showed particular strengths, and a special joy in participating in music. Our therapy team's humanistic, client-centered and flexible approach created an environment in which each child could thrive and build relationships with us and one other.
Early on, the children related more fully with their therapists than with their peers, became easily overexcited, and had difficulty with attention. Therapy goals were defined yet evolved as each child--at their own pace--became involved in musical experiences involving pre-composed and improvised songs and instrumental activities.
The following therapy goals became the emphasis of group activities:
1. To develop greater awareness of and empathy for peers
2. To strengthen social skills, by waiting a turn, listening to others, sharing instruments, playing together
3. To increase and use expressive language, in improvised and pre-composed songs, and in transitions between activities
4. To play with flexibility and control, i.e. in a range of tempi and dynamics
5. To experience joy and success in shared musical activity
Introducing and working on a song such as "Beat! Beat! Beat the Drum!" (Ritholz, Themes for Therapy, pp.74-75) served as a vehicle for increasing their focus, physical control, dynamic expression, and positive cooperation. Through its upbeat mood, contrasting B section, clear phrasing with easily perceived places for participation, and use of inversion, dissonance and harmonic surprise, the song motivated and challenged the group. Compositions such as this were worked on over time, and the group happily anticipated playing and achieving their parts each week.
Importantly, when the children made suggestions verbally, or played variations musically, these dcould be taken up in repeats of the song. The atmosphere was energetic, cooperative and joyful much of the time.
The Interplay of Composition and Improvisation
Music therapists Alan Turry and David Marcus describe the advantages of including compositions in group music therapy in the chapter “Using the Nordoff-Robbins Approach to Music Therapy with Adults Diagnosed with Autism” in Action Therapy with Families and Groups: Using Creative Arts Improvisation in Clinical Practice, (Weiner & Oxford (Eds.) (2003). They use the term “realization” to describe the process of recreating a specially composed piece of music that has particular parts for players.
Experiences with specially designed pieces can enable greater participation in improvised musical experiences. Marcus and Turry write:
The authors’ experience with a group of adults with varying levels of ability leads to the following observations:
Turry and Marcus note that clients may naturally lose interest in such music over time, at which point improvisation may be clinically warranted.
Concluding Instructor Remarks:
Whatever the musical medium we offer in sessions, we need to do so flexibly in order to invite participation, support client initiatives and make musical changes as needed. This is especially important to remember when bringing in pre-composed music. Music therapy students and therapists often speak of “getting stuck” in written music, as if its mere presence creates a block against spontaneity. This may stem from the way we have previously learned music, or the ways in which we experience the pre-determined structure of musical form, with its particular beginning, middle and end. This mindset can cut us off from the possibility of creating something new in the moment, the opportunity to form new music that flows from the original composition and the client’s responses to it.
Reflection Assignment - Complete Before Proceeding to Part II