Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Listening beneath the Words: Parallel Processes in Music and Psychotherapy

Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Listening beneath the Words: Parallel Processes in Music and Psychotherapy

Article excerpt


The parallels between musical communication and therapeutic dialogue have received relatively little attention in psychoanalytic literature over the years. Yet, musical creativity and improvisation bear striking parallels to the interactive processes involved in the mother-infant affective interplay, the intricate dance of intimacy, and the patient-therapist relational exchange. Just as appreciation of musical content is not limited to explicit analysis of the score and relies on our emotional attunement with the music's unfolding themes and harmonies, a rich body of literature in relational psychoanalysis emphasizes the interplay of the nonverbal and affective dimensions in the clinical interaction and intuition (Knoblauch 2005; Marks-Tarlow 2012a; 2014; Schore 2012). The connection between therapist and patient starts with implicit affective attunement at the level of mirror neuron networks (Iocoboni 2008), progresses to focused attention on verbal and nonverbal communications that envelop a patient's story (such as facial expression, body posture, speech prosody, narrative timing, and eye contact), and includes the complex matrix of transference-countertransference enactments in the treatment setting (Bassen 1989; Schore 2012). The verbal dimension of a patient's presentation can be compared to musical notes that comprise the score of his or her conscious life. A rich, nonverbal prosody carries the melody of the score's interactions and conveys its relational context and its somatic, affective, and associative impact on its listener, that is, the therapist. How is the story told? Why is it told now? What remains untold? What is the message to the therapist? When therapists unconsciously resonate with this relational melody as they consciously follow the development of its themes, they participate with the patient in the process of his or her self-discovery and alter the established trajectory of his or her enactments. In the words of Amini et al. (1996), "The therapist's job is to allow the duet to begin and to take up his/her place in the melody, so that the piece can gradually be directed to a different ending" (234).

Can analytical theory and technique successfully accommodate this kind of therapy as performance? Does the therapist cum musician stay detached from the process or become immersed in it? Do therapists look for an objective meaning of the therapeutic or musical story, or do they risk getting lost in the vicissitudes of its subjective and intersubjective interpretations? These are the questions we explore as we investigate the musicality of psychotherapy.

Emotions at the Center of Music and Meaning: An Adaptive-Evolutionary Perspective

Humans respond to music on a deeply emotional level, quite distinct from the semantic analysis of musical form or any associated verbal content. An operatic aria affects the audience on several simultaneous channels not reducible just to the meaning of the words sung or the sequence of the notes played. Both the therapeutic dialogue and complex, multilevel group therapy interactions build on semantic stories, which in turn rest on rich, unconsciously choreographed patterns of self-identity and ways of being with others that drive relations in the here and now.

The capacities for making music and telling stories are uniquely human and universal across all known cultures. From the psychoevolutionary perspective, the origins of both music and language likely stem from affectively driven vocalizations of separation and distress, joy, sexual competition, and territoriality. They are the warning calls and exchanges of feeling and intent evident across the mammalian species that represent the affective salience of experience, which is encoded by the limbic cortex (Panksepp 2009). The Differential Affect Theory (Izard 1991) identifies nine basic affects hard wired at birth in all individuals of every human culture from hunter-gatherer tribes to technologically sophisticated political states. …

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