Interaction in music therapy: an exploration

In February 2013 the Nordoff Robbins Research Ethics Committee granted approval for a research project that would explore interaction in music therapy. Today, following presentations based on parts of the projects at international conferences, our first journal publication from the project, called Analysing change in music therapy interactions of children with communication difficulties, has been published in the prestigious journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

We asked our Head of Research, Neta Spiro, 6 questions about the project:

1. What was the goal of the project?

The goal was to develop an approach that allows for comparison among many music therapy sessions, comparison between different clients and therapists, and to explore at what level any patterns we see are generalizable.

We had some very basic questions that included:

– How can we represent at least some aspects of what happens in music therapy sessions?

– How can we observe whether there is change in aspects to do with interaction?

– Which aspects should we be observing anyway?

– Can we come up with an approach that would be useful for practice?

2. Who was involved?

Over the years, members of the research team, Camilla Farrant, Sarah Boyce and Mercédès Pavlicevic, have been involved in the project. Our collaborator, Tommi Himberg, from the Department of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering at Aalto University has been integral to the project from its inception. Moreover, some Nordoff Robbins music therapists generously offered videos of their work with clients. Without the agreement of both the therapists and their clients this work could not happen and we are grateful for their collaboration.

4. What does this paper talk about?

The paper introduces an annotation protocol and tools that we developed. We did this to accumulate larger datasets of music therapy for analysis of interaction. Our analysis of video recordings of improvisational music therapy sessions focused on simple, unambiguous individual and shared behaviours and the relationships between them.

The behaviours were:

– whether participants were moving around the room or still,

– where participants were facing

– their rhythmic activity, and

– musical structures: whether the music was known songs or freer improvisations.

We display the data as overall proportions per session according to each player. This allows a general overview and comparison between individual players and sessions.

We also display the data as overall proportions for each par per session which gives an image of the pairs’ profiles.

Finally we display the data on a timeline – showing how sessions unfold over time.

5. What do you think readers will learn from this paper?

There are some tensions in music therapy and music psychology research. One is between the idea on one hand that everyone is unique and every situation is different while on the other, there might be some things that are common among groups of people or even among all humans. The results of this project illustrate that there are some similarities across client–therapist pairs and sessions and there are other aspects that are different. In this way, the results go some way towards reconciling client- and context-specificity on one hand and generalizability on the other.

Another tension is how to attempt to capture the complexity of real-world social interactions that happen in music making and music therapy.  One debate is whether to focus on individual indicators or whether to try to capture “everything”. The observations in our study point towards a framework for looking at change in music therapy that focuses on networks of variables or broader categories.

6. What next?

This paper, which was invited to be part of a special issue of the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, is a celebration and just part of the larger project.  The therapists who were involved in the project responded positively to the visualisations we came up with – saying that they could see uses for them in their work. This is hugely promising and suggests that we should pursue this line of research.

Find out more about the work of the Nordoff Robbins Research team