Exploring a Perspective on the Nature of Music and Health as they Relate to the Bonny Method: A Response to Summer's (1992) Music: The Aesthetic Elixir

By Brian Abrams

From Helen Bonny's collection of  violin music

In the context of the auspicious, retrospective posting of the article Music: The Aesthetic Elixir by Lisa Summer (1992) in the present issue of Voices, I would like to take the opportunity to offer a response, in which I will consider the article through an exploratory, theoretical "lens" concerning a way of understanding music both as a way of being together aesthetically in time, and as a dimension of health. This exploratory view has been articulated in a column I posted earlier this year in Voices, under the title, "Musical Therapy?" (2010).

The message of the present response is not to critique the article, but to expand upon a number of key points of Summer's original and still very important contribution to the literature. Specifically, the purpose is to draw upon Summer's article as a point of departure in offering an argument for the Bonny Method as a therapy that does not merely "use" classical musical selections in some technical sense (a popular idea—not Summer's), but rather as one that consists of a particular way of being musical to promote health, framed specifically within the receptive Bonny Method form.

At the opening of the article, Summer poses the question, "What is music?" followed by the suggestion that it is (among other things) "simply the ordered placement of sonic events in time." (p. 43). I am in agreement that music is ordered, in the sense of experiencing and/or expressing aesthetic coherence across time. But with respect to the music of the Bonny Method (which includes, centrally, the recordings of classical masterworks, but also the overall way of being with the client), the criterion of being aesthetic is deeply subjective and contextual—whereas "order" itself is possible without apprehension of artistic value. Moreover, like the silences before, after, and within a piece of music—as well as the various events outside of the musical sound that are still musical (in the sense of being aesthetic in time)—not all of music is composed of sonic events. In essence, music can be understood as aesthetic, human time itself.

Music can be further understood as intrinsically relational. It is something that that is always in some way shared between and among persons, in social context. This is so even when experienced under solitary circumstances. Thus, just as relationship is inextricable from being human, it is likewise inextricable from music. With respect to the Bonny Method, the associated recorded classical music selections consist of masterful forms of aesthetic time, experienced among multiple clients and therapist (in a group setting), between client and therapist (in the dyadic form), between client(s) and composer (usually in a posthumous sense), and/or between client(s) and collective humanity (in an archetypal, transpersonal sense).

Summer insightfully suggests that music is a primal language made up of sound components embodying basic experience itself, in the form of intensity, pitch, rhythm and timbre. Moreover, she suggests that human communication (such as verbal speech) is first and foremost experienced musically, and that words are patterned sounds to which the pre-verbal infant attaches a sense of significance, prior to any actual comprehension of the words themselves. The issue of sound aside, the concept of transferring principles of music and musicality to phenomena conventionally understood as "non musical" (i.e., general human speech, nonverbal communication, basic social interaction, etc.) lends credence to the assertion that the Bonny Method may be understood as musical in ways beyond its employment of classical music recordings.

Likewise, Summer makes the important point that when words—the "usual" mode of communication—activate the "usual" patterns of everyday defensiveness in therapy, music can bypass such defenses, and help access the primal forms of emotion and experience through sound forms free of specific, representational meaning. To shift this argument to the proposed perspective, it would not be the musical sound itself that mitigates defensiveness, but rather the subtle opportunities for being musical, throughout all phases of the Bonny Method session, with the guide's skillful support.

Summer's central explanatory principle concerning the Bonny Method consists of a progression from support of the client's current identity and way of being, to expanded actualization of potential by challenging the client to experience new and greater ways of being (beyond previous limits), to integrating these previously unfamiliar ways of being into an new, enriched identity and sense of self. For Summer, this progression is mirrored by the nature of classical masterworks. Great art music, sequentially and/or simultaneously, invites identification with what is heard (i.e., the "me" experience) and challenges incorporation of new possibilities for being that is not initially familiar (i.e., the "not me" experience), all rendered tolerable and meaningful via the aesthetic coherence of great musical sound forms. If expanded beyond the confines of musical sound, the explanatory principle Summer describes would operate throughout all stages of the Bonny Method process—from the moment the client encounters the therapist at the beginning of the session or session series, through the final phases of closure. In this sense, it is the Bonny Method guides responsibility is to juxtapose aesthetic "me" and aesthetic "not-me" experiences in time, and to provide opportunities for the client to actualize potentials for more aesthetic ways of being.

Undoubtedly, the masterfully artistic sound forms utilized within the Bonny Method are unparalleled models of health-promoting, aesthetic-temporal ways of being. As Summer observes about great music, it is a reflection of our most complex and primal selves. It penetrates time, not just into our youth but into our essence and origins. Jung would characterize it as archetypal. (p.48). The greatness of the classical masterworks transcends periodic, stylistic trends, and remains great through the passage of time. These works are sound embodiments of universal, human developmental processes, and are paragons of problem-solution processes, of archetypal proportions. They are akin to ideal maps for temporal-aesthetic being that can extend beyond the concreteness of the sound through which they are conveyed. Thus, Summer's original observation concerning the Bonny Method repertoire stands, and (in the context of the proposed perspective here) can be understood as comprising opportunities for greater aesthetic-temporal being.

Of great significance, Summer emphasizes how a central tenet of the Bonny Method is the key role of the client's agency, in that the music does not deterministically impact upon the client's consciousness in any predicable, uniform way (as anything deterministic cannot, by definition, be considered existentially or humanistically valid)—but rather that the client's own existing and emerging imagination that takes up opportunities in the music, and makes of them what the client needs them to be. Although the client does not make the music itself, she or he enters the given "space" of the music intentionally, and (with the support of the guide) construes it experientially according to individual agency and contexts. This notion of the Bonny Method as something beyond a quasi-deterministic health technology is supported by DeNora's (2000) constructs of affordance and appropriation. Along these lines, Summer writes, "Beethoven only gives us the structure. He does not compel us to feel one way or the other" (p. 51) and "The music knows the answer; it is up to the client to bring in his difficulty, and to allow the music to guide him to its origin, or perhaps its solution" (p. 52).

At the close of the article, Summer issues the charge: "Certainly, it is time for the field of music therapy to address the neglected study of the aesthetic domain" (p. 52). This charge speaks directly to the potential value of exploring the idea of music as a "domain" that is indigenously the purview of music therapy, both in terms of a means (intervention) and as an end (goal). Applying this idea to the current response, the Bonny Method could be considered a form of music therapy in which the client's musical health domain is addressed through ways of being receptive with creativity and imagination, in time.

I openly invite any comments, questions, and/or reflections on this brief essay.


Abrams, B. (2010). Musical therapy? Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved October 7, 2010, from http://www.voices.no/columnist/colabrams050410.php

DeNora, T. (2000). Music in everyday life, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Summer, L. (1992). Music: The aesthetic elixir. Journal of the Association for Music and Imagery, 1 (1), 43-54.