The Bonny Method: Training Innovations at Anna Maria College

By Elaine Anne Abbott

From Helen Bonny's collection of  violin music

In America in the 1970s, Helen Bonny developed a method of Guided Imagery and Music (GIM) that is now called The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music. She developed it as a receptive method of music psychotherapy and intended for practitioners to use it as a primary process for working with clients in long-term, in-depth therapy (Bruscia, 2002). In 1986, the Association for Music and Imagery (AMI ) set minimum standards for training and endorsing training programs (Lewis, 2002). Currently, there are nineteen, internationally located, AMI endorsed training programs: nine are in America, one is in Australia, one is in Canada, and eight are in Europe (AMI, 2010).

Since its inception, Bonny Method training has used the method itself as a framework for study. Over the course of three training levels, students learn beginning, intermediate and advanced Bonny Method concepts respectively, e.g., guiding techniques, clinical orientations, music programs, ethics, psychotherapeutic dynamics, etc. Training has also required that students engage in clinical practica and in a therapeutic process of personal growth using the Bonny Method (Lewis, 2002).

Over the last two decades, pioneering practitioners have found new ways to modify the Bonny Method for use in short-term clinical practice (Goldberg, 1994; Summer, 1988). Trainers have incorporated those modifications into training programs (Therapeutic Arts Institute, 2010; Anna Maria College, 2010; Expressive Arts Sweden, 2010). This movement has brought new understanding of the method and with it innovations in training.

Anna Maria College (AMC) has recently initiated a music and imagery training program. This program offers graduate coursework in music and imagery methods and leads to certification as a Fellow of the Association of Music and Imagery (FAMI). Like traditional Bonny Method training programs, the AMC program is offered in three levels and requires student participation in face-to-face intensive training modules, supervision, personal music-imagery sessions, and session guiding. The AMC program brings innovations to training in three main areas: a) the music and imagery methods used to train students, b) the processes of personal development in which students are engaged, and c) the processes used for distance supervision and peer interaction.

Training Methods

Training in the Bonny Method requires that students develop a specific skill set. They learn to foster authentic, therapeutic relationships with clients; to identify a client's therapeutic work and assess change in it; to guide a client to engage in here-and-now experiences of a therapeutic issue using music-imagery experiences; and to guide a client to use those music-imagery experiences for personal growth (Abbott, 2007-08). To learn these skills, students study psychological theories, altered states, the unconscious, imagery processes, etc. They also study the psychotherapeutic potentials, the form, and the structure of the music used in sessions (Bonny, 1993).

As with traditional training programs, the Anna Maria College (AMC) music and imagery program organizes the above material into three levels of training. In contrast to traditional training programs, however, students learn a different music and imagery method at each level of training. Each new method learned allows students to expand the depth and breadth of the therapeutic work in which they themselves engage, and in which they engage practicum clients. This developmental process allows students to gradually build and deepen a relationship with their own therapeutic work and to learn to guide practicum clients to do the same. The music and imagery methods taught at each training level vary based on these key elements: a) the primary therapeutic intention used to guide sessions, b) the procedure used to structure sessions, and c) the type of music used in sessions.

Level I

In Level I training, students learn a resource-oriented music and imagery method. The primary therapeutic intention of the method is to help clients bring experiences of intrapersonal congruence into conscious awareness, e.g., a time, place or space in which they felt comfortable, cared for, positive about self, etc. The overarching goals of resource-oriented music and imagery are for clients to begin relating to their internal selves, to feel safe and capable while doing so, and to develop ego strength. This music and imagery method is an adaptation of the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music.

A mandala drawn to Faure's Pavane
A mandala drawn to Faure's Pavane

The session procedure of the resource-oriented music and imagery method helps to set boundaries on the client's therapeutic experience and to hold it to the resource-oriented therapeutic intention. During the session, clients remain "upright" (e.g., sitting in a chair at a table) and with eyes open. The session moves through several phases. It begins with an "opening conversation" during which a client is guided to identify an experience(s) of intrapersonal congruence. Clients may describe experiences such as sitting in a familiar easy chair, spending time with a loved grandparent, or lying in a sunny meadow. The session continues with a "transition space" during which the client and therapist work together to a select a specific experiential focus, and a piece of music, for the music-imagery phase of the session. In the next phase, the therapist gives a brief "induction" during which the client is verbally guided to turn his/her attention inward and open to his/her experience of the session focus. The therapist then turns on the music and, in some way, directs the client to use it to support his/her experience while he/she freely draws a representation of it. For example, this drawing (called a mandala) is an expression of self-acceptance and was drawn to Faure's Pavane, Op. 50. This is the "music-imagery experience" phase of the session. When the drawing is completed, the therapist guides the client to talk about his/her music-imagery experience in a "closing conversation."

The client's therapeutic work is held in the resource-oriented intention not only by the session procedure, but also by the music used in the session. The music is selected to reflect qualities of the client's experience of intrapersonal congruence, e.g., the client's experience of lying in a meadow sounds slow paced, gentle, and as if it is in a major key. The music is reliable and has little tension: melodies are simple, repetitive and do not develop; tempos are steady; dynamics are moderate; and instrumental orchestration is not overly complex (e.g., Puccini's Humming Chorus from Madame Butterfly). Music of this type provides boundaries for the client's experience. Its nature (repetitive, reliable, non-developing) invites the client to open to his/her here-and-now experience and feel its sensory-emotional elements. It suggests to the client that s/he might stay with the experience and allow it to come fully into awareness; it does not suggest that the experience transform.

Level II

In Level II training, students expand the parameters of self-exploration to learn a tension-oriented music and imagery method. The therapeutic intention of sessions is to help clients bring experiences of intrapersonal incongruence fully into conscious awareness, e.g., feelings of being at odds with self or other, feelings of resistance toward having own sensory-emotional experiences, feelings of discomfort, etc. Clients may describe experiences in which they are angry with another, do not know how they feel, or feel torn. The overarching goals of tension-oriented sessions are to help the client accept difficult emotions, relate them to his/her core issues, and ultimately to gain new perspectives on life's daily conflicts. This music and imagery method is another adaptation of the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music.

In this tension-oriented music and imagery method, the session procedure and the music selections are used to help the client open to and stay with his/her experience of tension. The session procedure remains largely the same as in resource-oriented music and imagery, however, the opening conversation is used to explore here-and-now experiences of tension and the induction is used to focus the client's consciousness on one of them. The music is chosen to reflect the client's experience of tension and to help the client feel sensory-emotional aspects of it. As such, some elements of the music may be less reliable, e.g., tempo may increase or decrease; meter may shift; melody and harmony may briefly develop but then return to home theme; timbres may shift between soft and sharp or mellow and edgy; and/or dynamics may change within a moderate range. While selected to reflect the client's tension, overall the music still remains rather reliable (e.g., the Andantino movement of Debussy's String Quartet). This basic reliability helps the client open to, stay with, and own an experience of tension, rather than become sensory-emotionally flooded by an experience that is psychologically intolerable.

Level III

In Level III training, students learn a reconstruction-oriented music and imagery method. The therapeutic intention of sessions is to help clients move more deeply into an altered state and become intimately involved with their internal experiences as they relate to a program of music. The overarching goals of reconstruction-oriented therapy are to help clients find and explore new ways of relating to themselves and the external world, e.g., to allow self to experience a familiar situation in a new way, or to allow self to have a previously repressed experience and integrate it into self as an acceptable part. Clients may describe experiences during which they re-live a childhood event from their adult perspective, or during which they become able to have and accept feelings of anger toward self or other.

During this level of training, students are taught the Bonny Method of GIM. The sessions begin with an "opening conversation" during which the client and therapist work together to find a therapeutic issue on which to focus the session. From the opening conversation, the sessions move into an "induction." Longer than those used in resource- and tension-oriented music and imagery sessions, the inductions are used to guide the client into a deeper state of altered consciousness and help the client become as fully aware of his/her own experiences as possible. The "music-imagery experience" phase of the session involves at least two, if not more, pieces of music. The pieces are specifically programmed to help the client open further to his/her here-and-now experience of the session focus and then use the music and imagery process to explore that experience. When the music ends, the "return" phase of the session begins. This phase gives the client time to re-open the focus of his/her attention to include the external world (e.g., the room, the therapist, the needs/expectations of a daily schedule, etc.). During the "closing conversation" phase, the client is guided to talk about the music-imagery experience, acknowledge new experiences, compare and contrast them to known experiences, and relate these things to his/her therapeutic issues and day-to-day life. These session phases help hold the client to open to, stay with, work in, and possibly work through, experiences related to his/her therapeutic issues.

The music played in Bonny Method sessions also guides the client to work with a reconstruction-oriented therapeutic intention. Pieces for the music programs are selected to open the music-imagery experience, engage the client in therapeutic work, and bring the experience to a close. Opening pieces may reflect qualities of the client's experience of a therapeutic issue and/or help the client open to those experiences. From there, one or more "working pieces" are played. The musical development in a single working piece, or across two or more working pieces, is used to support development and change in the client's experience (e.g., the Sentimental Sarabande from Britten's Simple Symphony linked with Vaughn Williams' Rhosymedre). Closing pieces can provide the client with time to integrate new experiences into self and/or prepare to return to an alert state (e.g., the Brezairola from Canteloube's Songs of Auvergne).


The materials taught in these three levels of training in the Anna Maria College program provide students support for gradually building and deepening a relationship with their own therapeutic work. This process of development allows students to then apply this understanding, and their didactic learning, to their work with practicum clients. Over time, students develop the skills and knowledge needed to select therapeutically indicated music and imagery methods--including the Bonny Method--for work with clients in clinical practice.

Personal Development

When Helen Bonny first began developing a training program for the Bonny Method, she identified students' participation in therapeutic processes of personal growth as a key curricular element (Bonny, 2002). This was a new idea for music therapists in the 1970s, but one that continues to be foundational to Bonny Method training programs.

The Anna Maria College program requires that students engage in both self- and therapist-guided work. Self-guided work involves the completion of weekly, at-home assignments. Therapist-guided work involves participation in a series of Bonny Method sessions guided by a certified Fellow of the Association of Music and Imagery.

When work is self-guided, students use resource- and tension-oriented music and imagery methods to develop a relationship with their own intrapersonal experiences of congruence and incongruence. These weekly assignments begin in Level II training. They require students to sit with their self-experiences, to choose pieces of music to which they relate when in those experiences, to express the experiences through drawing to the pieces of music, and to journal about them. This identification and exploration of self-experiences will help students clarify boundaries between self and client, which in turn will allow for in-session identification and management of counter-transference reactions, e.g., Oh! I (therapist) recognize this feeling. I have it when I am cutting myself off from emotion. How does my experience relate to the music playing? How does it relate to the client's experience? Is this something I can use to help me understand or guide the client? Is this something I need to set aside because it is about me and does not relate to the client?

When work is therapist-guided, students participate in a series of Bonny Method sessions with a GIM Fellow and may participate in "distance check-ins" with that therapist. The series of Bonny Method sessions are given with a reconstruction-oriented therapeutic intention. They begin during the Level II training and continue through the Level III training. Students are required to bring their self-guided work into this series of sessions so that it may be integrated into them. When "distance check-ins" are a part of the therapist-guided work, they are done via telephone and/or email. The check-ins are designed to support the trainees' process of personal development and to help the client integrate self- and therapist-guided work into a whole therapeutic process.

Distance Supervision & Peer Interaction

The Anna Maria College music and imagery program is a distance education program. As such, one-on-one supervision, group supervision, and peer interaction are all conducted using significant technological support.

Technologies used for distance, one-on-one supervision are varied. Students and supervising faculty use Drop Box, a free, secure, online server, to up- and down-load client files, e.g., audio files of music, video files of sessions, and photo files of mandalas. Supervisions are held via telephone and Skype. Skype is a free, internet based technology for making video calls. Students and supervisors also use email for general communication (e.g., to set up meeting times, etc.) and to transmit audio files of music used in practicum sessions. This use of technology in supervision required the development of a program policy and procedure for safe, confidential transmission of client information.

Technologies are also used for peer interaction and group supervision. Online discussion boards such as the Anna Maria College course discussion board and a Ning website allow groups of students to create a secure, private space in which they are able support each other through the processes of learning and self-development the program requires. Assignments requiring regular posting of self-guided music and imagery sessions to the board encourage students to visit it and interact with peers (The program director does not have access to this board.). Free Conference Call Dot Com is a service that allows a group of people to call into a telephone number and conduct a conference call (long distance charges apply!). Supervisors use this service to gather three to four supervisees together for group discussion of practicum experiences.


Training programs in the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music are continuing to evolve. With rich traditions and new innovations, programs are working to meet student training needs and teach clinically applicable music and imagery methods.

The innovations integrated into the Anna Maria College program have direct implications for students. The music and imagery methods learned in the Level I and II trainings may, with or without some adaptation, be applicable to students' daily professional practice. The Level II and III self-guided music and imagery assignments support student use of self-care techniques, which can be useful in the prevention of professional burnout. Lastly, the content and structure of the training levels allow students to gradually develop a relationship with their internal selves, which in turn may allow them to better manage the challenges of and complete Bonny Method training.

In Guided Imagery and Music, Helen Bonny saw potential for music therapy to be a primary method of treatment in adult psychotherapy (Bonny, 2010). Adaptations of her original method are allowing music therapists to provide this level of treatment. Music and imagery programs offer a specialized, graduate-level training within the field of music therapy and prepare students to practice at an in-depth, advanced level. These programs lead the way into a model of music therapy as a primary therapy.


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