Music Psychotherapy: Guided Imagery and Music

Keynote speech by Helen Lindquist Bonny Music at Therapy International Forum: Toward the Recovery of our Humanity Gifu-City, Japan on November 3-5, 2000.

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[Editor’s Note: Helen Bonny, Joseph Moreno, and I (Lisa Summer) were invited to speak at an international music therapy conference in Gifu-City, Japan in 2000. This was Helen Bonny’s first trip to Japan; and it commenced with the adventure of her lost luggage. Having arrived several days earlier as a preventive measure for her chronic cardiac condition, our hosts were able to take care of her health needs and replace her belongings. When I landed in Gifu, I was greeted by our hosts and a healthy, very happy Helen Bonny, already assimilated into the culture with Japanese medicine, as well as beautiful Japanese clothes, scarves and shoes. This article highlights the essential aspects of her conference presentation.]

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Helen L. Bonny & Lisa Summer with translators

Greetings to you on my first visit to Japan, to Gifu Prefecture and to Gifu City. It has been a great pleasure to meet with music therapists of Japan and to attend the first two days of the conference with Lisa Summer and Joseph Moreno. I am impressed with the many hours of preparation for this event. They have prepared the conference and my stay here in many helpful and thoughtful ways. I am very grateful. I greet the special persons present: The Governor, Dr. Hinohara, Dr Matsui, and thank them for their presence. Fumio Kuribayashi, Professor of Music Therapy at Hokkaida University, trainee at the Bonny Foundation in the Guided Imagery and Music process will help with translation.

Guided Imagery and Music (GIM) has been taught and practiced for the last 25 years: in parts of the United States, and more recently in many countries around the world. The practice was cited at the 9th World Congress of Music Therapy held in Washington, D.C. in November 1999 as one of five outstanding contributions to the music therapy field.

When I first entered the field of music therapy in the 1960’s music therapy practice involved working almost exclusively with groups in a variety of psychiatric and remedial institutions. The music was simple in design and involved playing or listening, sometimes movement, in often effective work with clients. Helpful as those procedures were, I was eager to find a way to involve music therapy clients more deeply in great music of the classical tradition. I felt that hearing carefully chosen samples of this music while in a very relaxed state of consciousness could facilitate in evoking important memories and in working through conflicts in the context of psychotherapy. I was looking for a more powerful one-to-one therapy using music and its power to reach usually hidden internal emotions through imagery processes. I knew that music could accomplish this, and that the harmonic integration of inspired music could also bring about healing and transformation when the client was ready to receive it.

The GIM Process

First, a description of the process. Guided Imagery and Music is defined as the purposeful use of prepared classical music by a guide or facilitator to evoke sensory and emotional responses in the listener. These responses, in the form of imagery, symbols, feelings, past and present life review, sensations, unfolding metaphors and transformative experiences, become the heart of the session.

Through the guide’s use of relaxation, verbal intervention and knowledgeable application of the music, the client receives insights which lead to healing and therapeutic resolution. The ingredients for the process include: verbal communication, relaxation, focus/concentration of attention, and a music program. These are divided into five steps or processes. Because it is a music therapy process, the titles are taken from musical terms.


The guide is getting to know the client, his life history, his present concerns, and his aims for treatment.


The client is lying supine on a couch or reclining chair with the guide close by instructing. The therapist is using one of two progressive methods of relaxing the body and mind: 1) Tension/release (tighten muscles and release them); Jacobsen, inhale/exhale of breath, or 2) Verbal suggestion to “let go.” The purpose is to prepare the traveler by minimizing the kinesthetic body responses to allow a deeper state of consciousness, to concentrate on the auditory and visual senses, to get beyond our usual busy mental processes, and so the client gets acclimated to the guide’s voice.

Focus or Theme

An image situation is suggested as a place to begin. Unlike other music and imagery processes where sequences of imagery are suggested throughout the playing of the music, in GIM just one place or scene is suggested as a starting place. The music then takes over and suggests the sequences that follow according to the imagination of the traveler. This allows the traveler a “self-promoted” trip which is much closer to his/her personal needs.

Music/Imagery Session

The music/imagery trip is the heart or center of the process. The guide sits close by the reclining traveler as a support. The traveler verbally describes the internal images that come to him as the music is played. The guide responds to encourage the images and experiences to continue.


Images in response to music come in many forms and involve the senses. Visual images, for example, include relived early life experiences of personal value or importance. Events in which there is ambivalence or an unsatisfying completion come up for review. Life events, small or large, come up. Usually these have been caught deep in the subconscious where most therapies do not reach. The music, carefully chosen, is able to access the feelings around these events and allow a reliving of the original experiences. These images are much like dream images but not as fleeting as dream images which can be lost between dreaming and recounting. In GIM the images are immediately told to the guide during the playing of the music thus bringing the experience into the “here and now.” The traveler is reliving the experience as he tells it. The image may bring with it other associated feelings which can allow a working through of an old unsolved problem. The visual images may be of scenes of nature, or of memories of moments of beauty and inspiration which have not been fully expressed. How often during a music concert have you been deeply moved but unable to express the depth of your appreciation and emotion until the time when you can applaud or call out “Bravo!”? Too often those moments of deep, pleasurable, grateful response are lost. Thus, images both of beauty, and of conflict, and many other emotions and insights are brought forward to be expressed, and finally to be integrated into our lives.

Images do not necessarily involve visualization. They can bring out feelings which are verbalized to the guide to be expressed and worked through with the help of the music. Images may involve any of the other five senses: olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), auric (hearing), kinesthetic (touch), and parapsychological (insight – psychic). There are instances of not only seeing a rose, but smelling it; not only sitting at a table with colorful food, but smelling it, tasting it, and feeling it’s texture in the mouth; not only hearing the music but also, in addition to or instead of, hearing other music or conversations more in the context of the emerging visual or emotional imagery. There are instances in which the power of the sixth sense – insight (which we all have) – is often strongly present in GIM. This often brings a sense of deeper understanding and of closure. Many of the greatest inventions of mankind are attributed to this ability to delve into the great reservoir of human history which is sometimes identified – in Jung’s terms – as the archetype.

Imagination: Yes! Some say, “But what if I am just imagining something, i.e., making it up?” Our imaginations are a creative part of us. What they bring to us is a product of ourselves and of how we view our world. Therefore, such imagery in the form of stories says much about who we are and how we think. Imagery, therefore, may be thought of as the product of the GIM work.


Music’s role is primary. We call music our co-therapist because of its importance. The music is carefully chosen for each client, according to their history and in keeping with their present mood, and the areas of concern the guide wishes to address. It is possible for the music to be the same selection on a number of different occasions, or it can be different for each session, according to the need of the traveler. The program may include from one to many selections. A full program from three to as many as six selections may last from 20-35 minutes in length. Or the music program may be of one selection lasting only a few minutes. Lisa Summer will be speaking in more length about the music programs for individual and group GIM sessions.

What kind or type of music? So-called classical music, which has lived through time. In our country that music is Western classical music. But music of several of the World’s cultural music has been successfully used. More than thirty different programs put together by myself, Lisa Summer, and other GIM Fellows are regularly used. The music compositions range historically from seventeenth century Corelli through Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Impressionists to Twentieth Century composers. The greats: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms are used often. Not all of the selections of a composer are suitable. Each composition is chosen with the following in mind: 1) to encourage visual images, 2) to raise emotional and feeling states, 3) to suggest early memories, 4) to create positive feedback, 5) to effect physical relaxation, and 6) to support spiritual experience.

To give you a diagram or design of how the music may flow deeply into the individual psyche or self of the traveler I like to use the metaphor of the cut-log. Anyone who has sawed across a large log – upon looking at the log will see the rings of growth. The rings designating years of growth surround the core. I could see that the core could be the “ego” representing normal consciousness, and the rings surrounding the core could represent ever deeper levels of consciousness.


The last of the five processes of GIM is the postlude. When the music comes to an end the traveler/client is brought back to the usual state of consciousness by bringing to a close the imagery experiences. With eyes open and sitting up the guide helps the traveler review the imagery and feeling sequences for the purpose of making more concrete the events that have taken place. Sharing verbally with the guide brings insight and understanding. Although no effort is made to interpret the meaning of the images, the guide helps the traveler to clarify the experience; validate (give assurance of the value of what happened), highlight, emphasize feelings; and connect images/feelings with everyday life events. Evoked images have a “life of their own.” By that I mean the process of bringing them to the normal state of consciousness activates a process of unfolding so that in the hours and days after the initial experience the mind/psyche makes an effort to integrate the affective and cognitive information in a holistic manner. Travelers will frequently comment, “I don’t know exactly how it happened, but I now feel more whole, more together than before I began the GIM sessions.”

Early Life Experiences

It is easy to forget how foundational early life events are. Stanley Kunicks, the U.S. poet laureate has said, “One lives in the history of one’s life.” Music was around me during my childhood years: violin study and practice leading to a degree in violin performance. This led to my opening to depths of emotion, to rhythm, to the spirit within: and then to learn to express these elements to the listener. I got in touch with myself, with music, and with the eternal spaces which music reaches when a great composer opens us to spaceless realities.

The culmination came in my early 20’s when the music I played took on a surprising new dimension. Upon playing “The Swan” from Saint Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, my violin exuded the most beautiful sounds I had ever heard – they were not mine; my bowing and fingers moved as usual but the sounds were ethereal, out of this world. It happened again when I played the “Ave Maria” by Bach-Gounod. The experience had a profound effect upon my life, leading me to a continuing study and practice of spirituality, and eventually, to music therapy where I hoped to further understand the glorious phenomena which had changed my life. I did not find a description or a process for exploring the depth experience I had had. But I did continue my study with a Masters degree emphasizing research. I was hoping that by doing so I might find an approach [related to my spiritual experience on the violin]. Studies in consciousness had seriously begun when the by-products of taking psychedelic drugs revealed a promising new opening to the deep unconscious of the person. It was the late 1960’s and illegal drugs were rampant on the streets. A research center in Maryland was exploring the effects of LSD on clinical populations. Grants were obtained from medical facilities and the research was approved by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to work with appropriately tested populations: alcoholics, terminal cancer patients, emotional illness, and with professional clinicians who wished to experience the further reaches of consciousness. Music was used as the safest and most effective accompaniment to high does drug usage. It was my job to help chose the most effective musical accompaniment to each treatment schedule. To do so I conducted in-house research. We found that classical music was by far the most effective for the drug sessions.

A primary purpose of this investigation was to help the client attain what was called a psychedelic experience. These episodes had been viewed with impure street drug doses which resulted in bad trips under unsupervised conditions, with no measurement of drug doses, and no preliminary psychotherapeutic treatment. It was the psychedelic or peak experience which was valued. The twelve steps of “Alcoholics Anonymous” had proved the value of spiritual encounter in healing.

Using Music Alone

Our work with using the LSD substances was resulting in positive research results, but misuse of the drugs on the streets of America was creating havoc. With legislation against street drug use, our research efforts were discontinued. It gave me a perfect opportunity to experiment using music as the sole instigator of inner experience. I had remembered sitting in the audience when great orchestral music was played and had remembered drifting into deep worlds of beauty. I didn’t realize then what the transforming state was, but I loved the feelings that were aroused. I asked myself “Could this concentration and openness to great music with which I had listened be reproduced in others?” If so, then perhaps the deep feelings and experiences I had observed in our psychedelic drug work could be replicated.

I tried using music alone with alcoholic clients. It didn’t work. They needed to become more relaxed. To do so I tried relaxation exercises and gave them a familiar imagic starting place before introducing the music material.

The setting I tried was the same as with the drug sessions: lying on a couch with the therapist beside them. When the images were reported, the therapist began a dialogue to encourage a continuation of the music generated imagery. This process brought images and feelings to the surface which were then documented and used in a post-music integration. It worked! Over several music sessions, deeper levels of consciousness were reached without the difficulties we had encountered in the drug-music sessions.

The Bonny Method of GIM has borrowed strongly from the clinical drug-related work begun in the early 70’s at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center. It has, however, separated itself by making music, rather than the drugs the initiator, supporter, and mediator of deep inner experience. At the time I realized its potential as a form of possible private practice in the field of music therapy. Research toward that end was part of my doctoral study.

The use of music to support depth experiences in GIM is cited as a major difference between the Bonny Method of GIM and traditional music therapy. The GIM approach is self-evocative. It is based on the theory that the individual psyche when properly approached will respond with the most efficient and effective imagery, and that music is the central evoking agent. The therapist and the music provide a milieu within which the widest possible choices can be made. We call this milieu an envelope of sound, or “sound presence.” And the element of sound presence introduced into work with imagery creates the powerful therapeutic differences between verbally produced, and music-evoked imagery.

In GIM other artistic media are also used to make the imagic experiences more concrete for the traveler, and to help in the integration process after the experience. The art form called “mandala” written about and researched by Joan Kellogg, is widely used by GIM practitioners. Travelers are asked to fill a circle drawn on a large page of paper using colored chalk or crayons with images or feeling tones previously experienced during the playing of the music. These drawings can be taken away from the session to be reviewed and contemplated. They provide an important continuance of the imagery and a memory of what happened.

Theoretical Foundations

The research department required me to present theoretical foundations for my doctoral project. My task was to try to describe the GIM process and fit it into the known scholarly work which was being done in the fields of psychology and music. GIM leaned heavily on two current psychological ideologies: the humanistic and the transpersonal. Maslow’s self-actualization model and Carl Rogers’ client-centered therapy had broadened the areas in which psychology could function. The transpersonal model gave theoretical support to the type of transformation we had witnessed with the work at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center. I was interested in such questions as why certain music raised emotional responses, how generalized these responses were in listeners, how the elements of rhythm, pitch, timbre, dynamics, form and particularly performance, effected the depth and profundity of the traveler’s reported states of consciousness. I found some answers in published works of Zuckerkandl, Leonard Meyer, Pinchas Noy, and Suzanne Langer. But much of the learning about this new way of listening to music came through observation and experience.

In 1973 at the insistence of Louis Savary, a musician and writer, we proposed a manuscript for a book to Harper and Row Publishers. Music and Your Mind included our learnings at the time. A second edition of Music and Your Mind was published in 1990 with a revised list of proposed music selections. Three monographs followed to facilitate the training of professionals in the GIM method.

The process of getting to know the human mind in all its possibilities is a marvelous, and a frightening experience. A person can reach the height of ecstasy; he can come to a revelation of the presence and nature of the Supreme Being in all of her/his/their majesty. A person can also get in touch with power which can lead to self-destruction – or to positive levels of self-giving for the sake of humanity. “The self-actualization” of a person can lead to either positive or negative forms of behavior in the most extreme states of conscious awareness. We know this because of the negative use of drugs in all world societies.

Music is the Center

The music is central to GIM work. We call music our co-therapist, but in fact it is the core. The three year training which is required to professionally use the Bonny Method of GIM is largely spent in coming to know music, especially classical music. How to use music as the opener to altered states of consciousness; what elements in music evoke emotional responses, suggest imagery sequences, how the various tapestries of music suit personality types. In a sense the GIM facilitator becomes a composer of available music selections to suit the client/traveler’s present state of mind. At the beginning I programmed the music and put those programs onto some 18 different tapes. This was done as a model, as a suggestion of how profiles for a session might be built. Today, in our training, the introduction of CDs has made a more spontaneous choice allowable for the facilitator. As the music is learned and practiced more freedom in forming programs is possible. To do a credible job of guiding with music the facilitator/trainee must come to know each possible selection intimately.

Training in GIM

The success of my doctoral study was the impetus for the GIM training programs which have been given for over 25 years. These programs presented by some twelve national and international centers are now authorized by our overall regulating organization, the Association for Music and Imagery.

From the beginning of GIM practice, I have insisted on thorough and careful training of all who would use the method as a popular “mind-opening” device. Because of misuse of the method by untrained persons the Association for Music and Imagery voted to identify therapists who were thoroughly trained as “Fellows.” The new name for GIM practiced by fully trained Fellows is The Bonny Method of GIM.


The GIM approach is self-evocative. It is based on the theory that the individual psyche when properly approached will respond with the most efficient and effective imagery, and that music is the central evoking agent. The therapist and the music provide a milieu within which the widest possible choices can be made. We call this milieu an envelope of sound, or “sound presence.” And the element of sound presence introduced into work with imagery creates the powerful therapeutic differences between verbally produced, and music-evoked imagery.

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Helen L. Bonny, Lisa Summer & Joseph Moreno at Geisha house.

Those of us who have been privileged to bring about and use the GIM process know and respect its power. Any powerful method can be used for good purposes, or, when unwisely used, can be detrimental to the health and happiness of both the therapist and the client.

This conference theme is “Toward the Recovery of our Humanity.” The title would suggest that we are searching for our deepest and highest humanity, and for the place that music therapy has in bringing that into actualization. Dr. Moreno has shown us our ancient roots in shamanism. He has asked us to value those historic beginnings as a part of our heritage. Our present challenge as music therapists is to include present advances such as GIM. We have a momentous opportunity to prove how music therapy can open humanity to total understanding of the human person, and to demonstrate how great music can guide, reveal, encourage, instruct, and transform each of us.