How can music help in talking therapy?

The problems which lead people to seek counselling or therapy almost always involve their feelings. When therapy is helpful, it may make these feelings easier to manage. Clients may come to feel differently about what is troubling them. They may discover new perspectives, find new ways to address difficult situations and come to feel better about themselves and their lives. This article is about the way music can help because it is closer to experience as we live and feel it than words are. A specific approach, Music and Imagery (MI) is discussed.


Body and mind

If you’re feeling anxious, fed up, stressed, or have any number of other feelings that you’re struggling with, you’ll probably be able to identify, at least to some extent, what you’re feeling anxious, fed up, or stressed about. These are thoughts about the circumstances of your feelings and the people and events involved.

Yet, feelings are complex and sometimes very difficult to describe, let alone explain. Present feelings may be influenced by what happened in the past. Feelings may get buried because they are simply too painful to bear. You may have many different feelings about a situation and feel confused about it all. It may be hard to hold onto ‘good’ feelings because so much feels difficult.

Our feelings also affect us bodily. If you’re feeling anxious, you might experience ‘butterflies’ in the stomach. If you’re fed up, you may feel bodily ‘weighed down’ by the feeling. Feelings can make us tearful, blush, or experience a sense of tension in the body. Other feelings can make us feel energised in an invigorating way.

In working with feelings in therapy, it may not be enough to talk in a detached way about them. What may more be needed is to ‘feel the feelings’ in the room with the therapist and be helped with them over time. This, of course, needs to happen in a way that feels comfortable and manageable. Whilst working with feelings can take place very effectively through talking therapy alone, the involvement of music and other creative arts may be very helpful. This can bring another dimension to the work, where feelings are not only associated with thoughts but also felt and experienced in the body.

Music, talking, and feeling 

Words like happy, sad, or angry are in themselves distant from experience as felt. You may be able to tell more about how another person is feeling from their ‘tone of voice’ or their ‘body language’ than from the actual words they use. For example, if a person says they are feeling OK, it is their ‘tone of voice’ that may convey sadness, excitement, or whatever else they may be feeling within themselves.

A person’s ‘tone of voice’ is about the ‘music’ of their speech. Whether we are musicians or not, most of us learn very early in our lives how to ‘read’ the ‘music’ of other people’s speech to understand how they feel. More than this, we may be able to feel within ourselves something of what another person is feeling as we ‘tune into’ the music of their speech. This is the basis of empathy. We also use the ‘music’ of our own speech to convey how we feel to others, though we don’t usually do this consciously. It involves out employing subtle inflections of pitch, intensity, rhythm, and emphasis when speaking.

With music itself, there are of course many different types. Almost all cultures have their musical traditions. People’s sense of identity, personal, social, and cultural is often bound up with their musical preferences. Music supports emotional well-being and helps people make sense of their lives.

Sometimes people feel as if an artist singing a song they like understands them better than anyone else does – how they feel and what their situation is. Whilst the words of the song are likely to be important, so is the way the words are sung, which of course includes the shaping of the melody. The instrumental layers of the music are similarly vital in conveying feeling. There is also much music that is purely instrumental. It doesn’t take any specialist musical knowledge to respond to rhythm, harmony, and melody, or to the sound of different musical instruments used in film music to convey mood or atmosphere.

Music, as a ‘language of feeling’, is closer to experience as we live and feel it within ourselves than words are. This is why music can be helpful in therapy to work with feelings. As the philosopher Susanne Langer wrote:

“...because the forms of human feeling are much more congruent with musical forms than with the forms of language, music can reveal the nature of feelings with a detail and truth that language cannot approach”

Stories in words and music

When people begin therapy, the ‘story’ they tell themselves and others about who they are, about their relationships, circumstances, and what has happened to them, maybe a ‘story’ that is full of things that feel difficult, painful, or confusing. When therapy is helpful, the person may become able to tell a more satisfying ‘story’. They may have come to feel better about themselves, more able to make sense of what has happened to them, more able to cope, and more hopeful about the future. This whilst also acknowledging all that has been and perhaps still is difficult.

Music can be helpful in therapy because of the ‘stories’ it tells about human experience which people connect with emotionally. This can help people manage and make sense of their own experiences. Music can help people feel less alone with what they are struggling with because it is as though somebody else knows what it feels like. A song or piece of music can hold all the different feelings associated with an experience. Music can help people discover new perspectives that are helpful in everyday life and can lead to change.

Music and Imagery (MI) therapy

Music and Imagery (MI) therapy is one approach that uses music to help people with their feelings. MI is part of the spectrum of therapy methods that come under the umbrella term Guided Imagery and Music (GIM).

In MI, the therapist helps the client identify the feelings they may be struggling with and choose music that matches the experiential quality of the feelings. If the feeling is sadness, for example, there are so many different sorts of sadness not easy to capture using words alone. It may be easier to recognise in a song or other piece of music what quality the sadness has. For example, some music may be experienced to match a feeling of deep, heavy sorrow, while other music has a lighter sadness where there are also other feelings. Almost any genre or type of music could potentially be suitable for this type of work according to the client’s preferences.

In this way of working, it’s not just the more difficult or painful feelings that are worked with. Just as important may be feelings which nurture well-being and help build resilience. Woking with these feelings helps lay the foundation for working with experiences of abuse or trauma, for instance, that might otherwise overwhelm.

Art-making and talking together in MI 

Through the way music tells ‘stories’ about human feeling, clients can be helped to get to know and feel more comfortable with their feelings as these are worked with creatively. In MI, this involves the client creating an image using art materials whilst listening to their chosen music. To say more about this aspect of the work is unfortunately beyond the scope of this article. What can be clarified here, nevertheless, is that the process doesn’t require artistic skills, experience, or ‘talent’, just a willingness to give it a go and see what the benefits can be.

MI is in part a talking therapy. Indeed, much of the benefit of the approach comes from the way verbal and creating processing are integrated. Whilst it is the emotional processing that has taken place involving music and art that is most likely to lead to meaningful change, verbal reflection is also important. It can bring new ways to understand what feels difficult, for example, which can help in everyday life.

Next steps

If MI is something that you would like to find out more about or try, please use my profile to get in contact with me. You can either book a free consultation or email me to arrange a session. I look forward to hearing from you.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Dorchester, Dorset, DT1
Written by Martin Lawes, HCPC registered, DipMT (Bristol), FAMI
Dorchester, Dorset, DT1

I offer Music and Imagery (MI) therapy and other types of Guided Imagery and Music (GIM) in Dorset. These methods integrate talking therapy with creative processing and involve music listening, art-making, or visualization. I’m passionate about the use of the creative arts in talking therapy and train other therapists in MI and GIM.

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