Part II: Musical Examples and Analyses

In this section we’ll study several instrumental compositions written by music therapists. Take the time to play and/or sing each one. The music is written with piano accompaniment, some with chords indicated.  Guitarists have successfully adapted such music while still adhering closely to the particular makeup and construction of the original harmony. In addition, pieces have been used purely vocally when no harmonic instrument is available or if voice is the preferred way of relating with a client.

Carol and Clive Robbins describe the “mechanics” of constructing a musical place for the client in the texture of a composition in Music Therapy for the Hearing-Impaired and Other Special Groups (1980, Nordoff-Robbins Center for Music Therapy, NYU).           

Pieces are composed or arranged to bring students into experiencing music through making it.  They are written so that the parts the students play—on all levels of complexity—are clear in themselves and integral to the expression and character of the music.

The piano maintains the overall harmonic and rhythmic structure of the music and in many pieces creates a melodic interplay with the instruments. The various instruments are arranged selectively to provide melodic line, tone color, rhythmic emphasis or elaboration, harmonic enrichment or other musical features that add to and complete the total arrangement.  Work on these pieces can generate close attentiveness to the elements of musical experience.
— p.89


1)  “Beat the Drum Once” by Herbert Levin and Gail Levin

This is an activity song by Herbert and Gail Levin, former students of Nordoff and Robbins. The song is published in Learning through Music (1998, Barcelona Publishers), a valuable resource for music therapists.  Sing and play this extract from the song to experience its striking clarity and musical/clinical unity of purpose.

Beat the Drum Once,” in a minor mode stimulates playing and turn taking in the most reticent of clients.   The song’s declarative phrases, with unresolved harmonies followed by rests, call for response on the drum. Martineau (2010) describes the powerful effect of “a well-placed rest” (p.258), an essential musical aspect to consider when creating and playing music with clients.
— Ritholz, p. 13


There are other notable musical aspects at play:

1.     The melody strongly supports the lyrics by following its prosody (patterns of stress and intonation), i.e., placing certain words, like “Beat” and           “Once” on the downbeat.

2.     The lyrics are relevant to the activity at hand, contain repetition, and are clear and direct.

3.     The ascending melody creates a feeling of anticipation, especially as it does not resolve immediately to the tonic.

4.     The silence (rest) following the phrase gives the player a clear place to be heard.

5.     The minor mode lends a feeling of purposefulness to the activity.

6.     The song’s structure encourages attention and impulse control as the player listens and waits for her time to beat

This is a ideal model on which to base a new instrumental activity song, in whatever style or mode you’d like to create for your client. (Following this section, you will view a short excerpt during which the song is introduced in a session.)


2. “Ring Your Bells “by Michele Ritholz

In this (unpublished) composition for two resonator bells (E” and A’) and piano, the bells are given a place of importance within the arrangement, and are sounded during the rest following short melodic phrases.  One or two players may participate. Play the piece and try to identify what musical elements might motivate engagement.

Musical Elements:

1.     Reciprocal/interactive play with the therapist is embedded into the music.

2.     Two clients (or more, if being doubled) may take turns playing, listen/wait at times, and then play together at the end.

3.     Written in the key of A major, added tones such as the Maj 7, min 7, Maj 9th, #11ths and b5 are used to enrich the chords and               lend a  jazzy style to the piece.

4.     In addition to the primary chords of I (A), IV (D) and V7 (E7), minor chords such as iii (c#m7), vi (f#m7), and, a chord out of the key, the bII              (Bb Maj9 b5) are present.

5.     Notice the alternation of wide and close spacing between notes in the piano arrangement. Using contrasts can invite and hold attention.


3) “Reed Horn Blues” by Marc Houde           

Instrumental compositions can be written with simultaneous parts leading players into directed ensemble playing.  The following 4-measure excerpt from a piece by Marc Houde invites players to make music with two reed horns, electric guitar (open D tuning), percussion and cymbal. It can be found in Composition and Improvisation Resources for Music Therapists, edited by Colin Andrew Lee, Aimee Berends, and Sara Pun (Barcelona Publishers, 2015). The composer writes: 

This highly structured arrangement was originally designed for group work with older children and adolescents.  The therapeutic aims are to:

·      Increase focus and concentration

·      Develop social skills

·      Increase self-esteem

·      Increase group cohesion and peer support
— p.21

Later in the piece, the composer provides an opportunity for instrumental solos as the piano continues the pattern without pre-formed musical parts written. This is a clear example of an ABA form, the B section being improvised within the frame of the piece. 

Musical elements:

1.     Blues idiom and band structure may be highly motivating to certain clients.

2.     The moving bass line creates momentum.

3.      Dissonances can awaken attention and stimulate participation.

4.      There are opportunities for various kinds of participation in the Interplay of parts.


4. “Listen to the Sound!” By Michele Ritholz

The final (unpublished) example is a piece that calls for cymbal punctuation. The lyrics bring attention to the activities of the moment--listening attentively to the music and playing the cymbal with purpose.  Meant as a vehicle for a client whose single strike on the instrument might take great effort, the music highlights and celebrates the achievement.

Musical Elements:

1.     Written in Bb minor, the descending bass and harmonies create shifting musical moods.

2.     There is a suggestion of a minor blues tonality.

3.     The harmonic rhythm is quick, as chords change often.

4.     After the music repeats, the player contributes his last beat accompanied by an unexpected DbMaj9 chord. A change such as this is                           meant to both bring out the significance of the player’s role in the musical whole and be aesthetically pleasing.

The value of composing and introducing such songs in sessions is described in Creative Music Therapy:    

Songs can play an essential role in accompanying and enhancing the beating of drum and cymbal, and the playing of other instruments. Songs serve this purpose in several ways. They actively encourage and acknowledge a child’s involvement, provide readily accessible experiences of structure such as rhythmic patterns in the melodic rhythm, refresh motivation, reinforce concentration as necessary, and celebrate achievement. Songs for beating also live in children’s minds between sessions as memories of enjoyable, meaningful instrumental experiences they want to repeat, and which they therefore anticipate. Such songs can epitomize a child’s experience in therapy.
— p.251