Music: The Aesthetic Elixir

By Lisa Summer

Editors note: This article was originally published in 1992 by the Journal of the Association for Music and Imagery, 1(1), 43-54. Copyrighted and reprinted here by the kind permission of the Association for Music and Imagery.


The Development of Music as a Language

In traditional psychotherapy speech is the medium utilized for communication and expression. Recently, the use of music has also proven itself to be a powerful tool in the delivery of psychotherapy. But what is music? The soother of savage breast, the propellant of militaristic ventures, the ineffable language of the soul; music is simply the ordered placement of sonic events in time.

“Unlike the book, the piece of music is immediate common ground. Our responses to it can be simultaneously private and social. . . . We draw close while being, more compactly ourselves” (Steiner, 1971, p. 121). Steiner’s statement regarding our responses to music rings true not only on a private and social level, but also on the psychological level, in which we draw close to the younger version of ourselves (the primal, the infant).

How do we acquire the use of music as a language for expression and communication? To the younger version of ourselves, language is music. A newborn hears a symphony of diverse abstract sounds; language has not yet become representational. “The infant lacks the capacity of relating to language as a semantic system, to its symbols and concepts, he is responding to the various sound components – intensity, pitch, rhythm and timbre…If we could turn back and identify with the infant, hearing the would around us through infantile ears, might not the secrets of music unveil themselves before us, enabling us to understand its paths of expression?” (Noy, 1968, p. 334).

The infant cannot comprehend specific meaning in verbal communication, but the “inarticulate, preverbal music of mood and intent is a constant undercurrent in speech” (Burrows, 1990, p. 32). Words are nothing more than sounds arranged in patterns, and yet the infant recognizes the essential import of these patterns, and that the patterns have significance. This attachment of significance to sound patterns precedes actual comprehension. It is the repetition of sound patterns which reinforce the pattern’s particular significance. The very act of repetition serves as a link between the parent and child, a notice of ipseity.

This early mode of expression and communication between parent and child creates within us the latent ability to utilize sounds as meaningful expression. Just as the parent assists the newborn, the music therapist helps the new client to feel comfortable using the elements of music for expression and communication.

Music as the Medium

The act of speaking with a therapist contains content boundaries. Verbal communication delineates, it restricts, it is primarily about the world outside. The very act of speaking to a therapist creates a separation between the communication with the therapist and communication with the psyche. The focus is upon translating self-experience to make it understandable to the therapist. The client, perforce, must create a verbal container for his immediate feelings, his life experiences. In many instances, verbalization is not sufficient to effect therapeutic change, as it is our usual mode of communication and activates the usual defensive psychological patterns.

The music therapist uses music to unlock the soul, to free it to express not only repressed memories but also to convey emotions beyond any verbal analogue. Grown men who might otherwise disdain the public display of emotions will cry during the audition of a piece of music. It is not strange that therapists have used this peculiar instrument, music, to delve into the otherwise often heavily defended psyche. Music allows the client to bypass usual verbal defenses by reactivating primal experiences of expression through the elements of sound, sound without specific representational meaning.

Bruscia (1989) defines music therapy as “a systematic process of intervention wherein the therapist helps the client to achieve health, using musical experiences and the relationships that develop through them as dynamic forces of change” (p. 47). The systematic process of musical and interpersonal interventions includes the following basic steps: 1) provide support for the client’s identity, 2) expand the client’s repertoire of experiences (behavior, feelings, insights, etc.), and 3) allow for awareness and integration of the experiences which are achieved through the employment of sound and music.

Supporting the “Me” Experience: Individual Therapy

Winnicott (1962) has described the basic functions of providing “good-enough mothering” for a child, in order to support the child’s natural growth pattern. A successful music therapy process can be likened to the re-enactment of the successful and natural development of Winnicott’s mother-child dyadic relationship. Winnicott contends that the first requirement for a “good-enough mother” is the provision of strong and unconditional nurturance and support. The music therapist in beginning sessions should have this same express purpose in mind: the support of the client’s experience of himself through the aesthetic domain of music.

The use of spontaneously improvised music is one effective technique in the supportive therapy of beginning sessions. For example, in a spontaneously improvised music therapy session where the therapist plays the piano and the client utilizes simple rhythm and melodic percussion instruments, the client is able to be simultaneously composer, performer, and listener, expressing and communicating his inner “me” experiences to the therapist. The music therapist playing simultaneously with the client, acting as composer, performer and listener as well, but within a supportive framework rather than a self-expressive one, gives reinforcement to the client’s identity. The therapist matches the client’s tempo, rhythms, tonality, dynamics, etc. and provides a “musical background or accompaniment that reverberates the client’s feeling while also offering a musical structure for containing their release” (Bruscia, 1987, p. 552). Creating a sympathetic musical structure is a “holding” device, and allows the client to project his inner experiences of himself outward into sound. When his inner experience is reinforced by the therapist’s “holding” accompaniment, he will feel a strong sense of support for his identity, his “me” experience. This is the heart of the improvisational process, and the first manifestations of the client/therapist relationship in music. The client and therapist are making musical contact (Nordoff & Robbins, 1977).

The popular and New Age musical forms, which are structurally simple and repetitive can communicate a feeling of being “at home” to the client. Singing, playing or listening to recordings of popular music is common in music therapy sessions when the therapist is intending to create support and safety, prior to pushing beyond the familiar confines of the client’s self-experience or the “me” experience. In fact, in hospital work with acute psychiatric patients, evocative or complex music is contraindicated. Throughout treatment the therapist provides supportive, holding music. Goldberg (1988) cites seriously ill client’s insufficient ego defenses as the reason for utilizing holding music, and characterizes the music she uses as being of short duration and limited dynamics. The element of repetitiveness in most popular and New Age music, and the repetitiveness common to supportive music improvisations carries a message of comfort and nurturance without threatening the “me” experience.

Familiar music is another way to create a “good-enough” nurturing environment in music therapy. Songs or pieces with which a client is familiar have acquired specific meanings and feelings for the client through association and memory. Thus, the melody first danced to by a pair of lovers becomes “our song” and inherits a meaning to the individuals involved beyond the actual intent of the composer. Suffocating Aida and Radames in the final scene of Verdi’s Aida meant one thing to Verdi, but it is by me indelibly associated with my first kiss from my husband to be. Pieces with fixed meanings for the client provide a supportive reflection of the self in sound, the “me” experience.

Utilizing a musical genre or a specific piece of preferred music (rather than therapist’s prescriptive choice) also allows for a supportive “me” experience for the client. Music which a client prefers is a direct reflection of a particular aspect of the psyche and brings up specific memories, feelings, and thoughts in a manner that validates the client’s present and past state of being. It will create a supportive experience and can lead to a swift encounter with many kinds of problems. Familiar and preferred music, however, will not usually encourage work within the deeper levels of the psyche due to the specific, and sometimes rigid thoughts and feelings which arise in response to it.

Supporting the “Me” Experience: Group Therapy

Popular, familiar or preferred music, and supportive improvisations are especially beneficial in group music therapy as well. The immediacy of a current hit provides a common ground to support the beginning of a group identity, a collective “we” experience. Familiar music allows for comfortable group interaction to begin. Lyrics which are reflective of problems of many group members (such as feelings of loneliness) create a bond among the group, resulting in catharsis and insight. Provocative lyrics (such as resorting to alcohol in the face of difficulty) bring problem solving, decision making, and reality testing to the fore. Work upon these goals which are common to all group therapy is most effective in a non-confrontive manner through the common and enjoyable experience of music listening and making. In like manner, a spontaneous musical composition represents a process of expression for each group member, and for the creation of a group identity through music. Supportive musical experiences highlight identity in both individual and group treatment.

Expanding Beyond the “Me” Experience and Its Contraindications

Winnicott (1969) contends that it is the mother’s duty to provide the child with stimulating experiences in order to allow for natural psychological and physical growth. Providing the child with new and challenging “not-me” experiences promotes ego development through mastering anxiety. When a child encounters an unfamiliar experience, a new toy for example, this “not-me” experience may at first produce anxiety. However, with support from the parent, this anxiety can be a “call to action.” The child can be encouraged to play with this toy and to incorporate it into his repertoire of comfortable “me” experiences, and thus expand his abilities, behaviors, and feelings – expand his sense of being in the world.

Winicott’s theory contends that a transitional space, one between reality and fantasy, is created through children’s play, and that this transitional space is a bridge to growth. In music therapy, the music itself creates a highly effective transitional musical space wherein the client can experience, and then incorporate, new and sometimes threatening “not-me” experiences. Nolan (1989) calls improvisational music the transitional object which can effectively bridge inner anxiety and outer reality.

In each session, the therapist creates a musical space for the client. At times this will be a musically supportive “me” experience. In this regard, Winnicott warns parents against presenting experiences of the “not-me” type which are either: too frequent or threatening (a toy not age appropriate), which could injure the child’s sense of mastery over external and internal objects and situations; or too infrequent, which could cause complacency and inactivity in the child. In therapy, clients with weak or unstable egos, with severe physical illness or physical pain, and those in immediate crisis require a therapeutic approach which is especially supportive, rather than evocative. Supportive therapeutic interventions in the aesthetic domain are the heart of therapy with these clients. Evocative musical experiences should be prepared for fully and approached cautiously.

The “Not-Me” Experience in the Aesthetic Domain

For clients with adequate ego strength, or for those clients in long-term music psychotherapy, the musical space can be a highly evocative one, with significant “not-me” experiences manifested in sound. For example, whereas supportive musical improvisations contain repetitive, simple, and full sound patterns, an evocative improvisation is created by developing the sounds, the musical material, created by the client. Utilizing harmonic modulations, and variations in various musical elements such as rhythm, melody, timbre, dynamics, tempo, register, and phrasing, the therapist presents new possibilities for the expansion of the client’s musical behavior, and concomitantly, his repertoire of behaviors. Kenny suggests that with music, “we symbolically experience situations other than the one in which we presently find ourselves…[and that the] client hears new ideas for solutions and experiences new feelings” (1985, p. 60).

The Aesthetic of Classical Music in Therapeutic Transformation

In singing, playing or listening to already composed music, which is complex and unfamiliar, a “not-me” experience is created. In using classical music the music therapist is able to enter a new and boundless terrain. With rare exception a classical piece will have an effect beyond support and preconceived associations.

Classical music is more than another genre. It is a distillation of the attempts of the greatest abstract creative minds of Western civilization to shape time and convey meaning without the use of words or pictures. Only the most superlative works have survived the crucible of time and become part of what makes our species meaningful. The music that has survived the crucible is fit. Whereas, the music of Dittersdorf languishes, deservedly, in the dusty archives; the music of revolutionary Beethoven thrives.

The great musical works have not survived by luck. Regardless of fashion changes, political upheavals, or the philosophical implications of quantum physics, Beethoven still effects people in 1992 without need of footnote, emendation, or modernized translation. His Fifth Symphony is as strong now as it was when it was first performed. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is as wildly exuberant at 75 years of age as it was at its conception. Does Bach’s music sound dated? There is in great music a quality, a veracity, a true empathic relationship with humanity, that makes it not just immortal but timeless. We may dance to today’s newest tune, but our children’s children will find it (as we find our parents’ parents’ music) quaint, at best. Yet still will our childrens’ childrens’ hearts resonate with undiluted appreciation and intuitive understanding of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. Why? Great music 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. Alfred Lorenz, writing on Wagner, commented, “…you sometimes experience moments in which your consciousness of time suddenly disappears and the entire work seems to be…‘spatial’ with everything present simultaneously in the mind” (cited in Adorno, 1981, p. 33).

Lorenz may be reflecting Wagner’s own text to his opera, Parsifal, in which Parsifal says, “I hardly move, yet far I seem to have come,” to which Gurnemanz replies, “You see, my son, time changes here to space” (from Act I, “In the Grail’s Domain”). Gurnemanz explains that Parsifal cannot find the grail by following the path of others; no man can find the path to the grail but that the grail itself leads him there. Thus does great classical music impel the client in music therapy to move from the conscious “me” experience towards the unconscious, a part of the self heretofore unknown or unexperienced. The therapeutic application of carefully selected pre-recorded classical music provides a significant “not-me” experience for the music therapy client.

Guided Imagery and Music (GIM)

The music therapy process of GIM developed in 1971 by Helen Bonny, was specifically designed to stimulate transformative, therapeutic experiences through the use of programmed classical music (Bonny, 1975, 1977, 1978a). The exclusive use of classical music as the catalyst for imagery is one of several factors which differentiate GIM from other music and imagery techniques (Bonny, 1978b).

In a GIM session the music therapist assesses the current emotional state of the client, and then chooses a classical music program (usually from tapes developed by Helen Bonny) which will first match that state in sound. This provides an initial supportive “me” experience in sound. Once a supportive musical space is established, the second stage of the GIM process involves music of a more evocative nature, the “not-me” experience. Whereas the initial piece of music may suggest to the client a comfortable, relaxing scene in a meadow, the second more evocative piece may impel the client away from the comfortable scene, to explore a nearby darkened forest. In this second piece of music, the structure of the music itself will continue to support the sense of comfort gained in the first scene the “me” experience, while simultaneously compelling the client’s movement into new, and possible unconscious, territory – the “not-me” experience. (This example is not meant to imply that all GIM sessions follow this same structure. For additional descriptions of GIM procedures and sessions, see Summer, 1988.)

Gaining Access to the Personal Unconscious: the “Me” to the “Not-Me”

The key to classical music’s ability to stimulate heretofore unconscious thoughts and experiences, the “not-me” experience, is contained within the process of musical composition itself. In each piece of music, the classical composer explores the ramifications of musical material. A composer, upon creating an initial theme, contemplates the basic elements of its beauty or aesthetic propriety and develops its identity. One method that composers use to accomplish this is through the structure of the sonata form. For example, in the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the exposition (the statement of the initial musical material) is followed by a section called the development. Typical development sections are composed by augmenting, diminishing, and reorganizing elements of music material introduced in the exposition. In the development of this first movement, Beethoven does just this: dissects, splices and rearranges the music elements of the exposition’s material. The composer is not interested in embellishing the superficial aspects of the music’s beauty; but rather, in an intellectual exploration of the validity of the musical material itself. The composer willingly destroys the contour of a beautiful melody in order to further develop it. Phrases are fragmented in order to change their perspective. Rhythms are exploited or interrupted in order to enhance the sonic message of the movement.

Each compositional technique affects the identity of the original material, and transforms the listener’s perspective of the original musical theme or exposition. This reappraisal of musical elements from the exposition to the development section of the musical sonata form is a parallel for the therapeutic experience of the “me” and “not-me” experience. The “consciousness” of the music is expanded, the “me” which characterized the exposition is transmogrified in the intellectual processes of the development, allowing the resultant “not-me” to be less threatening, and hence, more easily incorporated by the psyche. The music serves as a model, an evocative musical space for accessing unconscious thoughts, repressed memories, solutions to problems, buried positive aspects of the self, and experiences of a transpersonal or spiritual nature. Accessing unconscious thoughts, positive personality attributes, and repressed memories formerly buried under defenses is analogous to the composer’s uncovering of musical possibilities previously unexplored in the exposition. The weighing and choosing of solutions to life problems are analogous to the composer’s “trying” various solutions and presenting them as musical possibilities for the listener.

The listener is not aware of the technical devices by which Beethoven molded his first movement of the Fifth Symphony. Rather, he experiences the previously unprecedented as Beethoven marries musical ideas which seem irreconcilably antithetical: the normal concept of time, wherein the past is unalterable and the future uncontrollable, is metamorphosized; the past and future becoming contained in the present. In a GIM session, with verbal support and guidance from the music therapist, a client can access therapeutically significant unconscious memories and generate solutions to life dilemmas, to delve into both the past and the future, with the goal of physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual transformation.

Gaining Access to the Collective Unconscious: The Transpersonal

Music is not defined by the moment, but rather as an accumulation and melding of memories. As the composer develops the musical material of his piece, the listener is still experiencing the original material of the exposition, but from a different perspective. This simultaneous experiencing of the original musical material (the “me”) and all of its metamorphoses (the “not-me”) allows for the suspension of linear time, and thus an altered state of consciousness. This altered state allows the listener to become “one” with the music, actually loosening the boundaries of the personal identity. The listener is thus totally receptive, and in tune with the healthful processes of self-actualization paralleled in the structure of the music provided by the therapist. In becoming one with the music, a client can go beyond the personal unconscious and enter into the realm of transpersonal experience, the realm of the collective unconscious provided by classical music.

What does Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony mean? How do different individuals listening to it derive disparate psychological meanings from it? A great piece of music communicates specific archetypal messages which are the same in their significance for all of humanity. This would explain how a work like Beethoven’s Fifth is so universally acclaimed generation after generation. However, though two people may agree upon what Beethoven’s Fifth, first movement means, one hundred people will not. Is the first movement heroic or ominous or both? Is it neither? At its premier performances the Fifth evoked remarkably different reactions. The French musician, Jean Leseur found it exciting; the German, Louis Spohr, found it lacking in dignity, and it is reported that members of the London Philharmonic found it facetious. Movies have used the Fifth to characterize military action and, contrarily, intellectual pursuit. The movement has been used to sell a brand of pain reliever and breakfast cereal. Since its premiere, it has acquired “accepted” meanings, but these are just the attributes of people with whom its ineffability does not sit well. Compare, for instance, a less familiar work by Beethoven which has not been so frequently and insistently categorized and straight-jacketed: the Marcia Funebre from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Opus 26. The Marcia Funebre is defined by Beethoven as a funeral march. But, is it funereal? The movement is written in a minor key; which mode is labeled “sad” by shallow analysts; but if “sad” describes minor, then how explain the Marcia Funebre’s transition at the end to major? Indeed, if the Marcia Funebre is symbolic of death, why does Beethoven continue the sonata after this movement? Beethoven had no desire to restrict our contemplation of Opus 26 to his own motivations in composing it. His title may be viewed as an “opinion” or perhaps a rhetorical device – an argument. Whether the piece is about death, rebirth, peace, or whatever is really not Beethoven’s business any longer. It is ours. Individually, we determine its content. Beethoven only gives us the structure. He does not compel us to feel one way or another.

Beethoven may not have been particularly an enlightened or transcendent human on a personal level, but when Beethoven wrote music he transcended the “me” and reached the “not-me.” Beethoven’s music does not require an understanding of Beethoven’s personality, nor can we comprehend his music fully by studying his comments regarding it. These are his personal views. Of the A Minor String Quartet, Opus 132, much has been written of the personal meaning of the third movement, “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesen an die Gottheit,” but one does not need liner notes to appreciate the work, nor can liner notes account for our diverse reactions to the movement. Indeed, Beethoven could write pieces of extremely contrasting moods regardless of his personal circumstances. He followed the A Minor Quartet with the Grosse Fugue, his most uncompromising work, while simultaneously churning out dozens of meretricious folk song arrangements. His great works exceed him. They soar above the personal details of his life and attain a level of universal meaning. Bruckner was a passionless, pitiful individual; Wagner, a vile anti-semitic protonazi; Mussorgsky, a lazy alcoholic; Schumann, a manic-depressive. But their music does not reflect their personal frailties. Great composers communicate a transpersonal message beyond their individuality and beyond their personal lives. Composers die, but their music transcends past, present, and future.


The GIM process utilizes classical music in an altered state of consciousness to provide an evocative musical space for the purpose of exploring personal and transpersonal phenomena in therapy. In GIM, time is obliterated. The client gains immediate entry to his past, present, and future possibilities. The therapist supports, through the use of the classical music, a timeless musical working space for the client. Music which is current, restricted to our lifetime (familiar, popular, or preferred) has clear boundaries which enable us to be fully in the present, or to remember our past associations. These boundaries are necessary and helpful in supportive therapy; however, therapy is change. And change occurs in the future. It is music which is timeless and has no defined meaning to bind the listener which is able to catalyze deep physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual change through addressing existential issues. Eagle and Harsh report that, “Music alters time because music is time” (1988, p. 22). The fictional composer Adrian Leverkuhn explains, “Relationship is everything. . . . And if you want to give it a more precise name, it is ambiguity. . . . Music turns the equivocal into a system” (Mann, 1949, p. 49) – a system with structure, but with no concrete association. 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.

In GIM goals are set and are accomplished through introspection within an evocative musical space. Classical music provides a new perspective for problem solving, reflecting the musical problem solving of the composer. GIM works because of the music, which seems, as Steiner (1971) relates, “to gather, to harvest us to ourselves” (p. 122). “Perhaps it can do so because of its special relation to the truth. . . . It is here that the affinities of music with needs of feelings which were once religious may run deepest” (p. 121). Perhaps the task of verbalizing the effect of the aesthetic experience on the human condition is beyond the boundary of possibility; yet, in music therapy we know it is real as we witness its transformative therapeutic effects. Certainly, it is time for the field of music therapy to address the neglected study of the aesthetic domain.


Adorno, T. (1991). In search of Wagner (R. Livingstone, Trans.). (3rd Ed.). Manchester, England: NLB.

Bonny, H. (1978a). Facilitating guided imagery and music sessions. Monograph #1. Salina, KS: Bonny Foundation.

Bonny, H. (1978b). The role of taped music programs in the GIM process. Monograph #2. Salina, KS: Bonny Foundation.

Bonny, H. & Tansill, R. (1977). Music therapy: A legal high. In G. Waldorf, (Ed.). Counseling therapies and the addictive client (pp. 113-130). Baltimore, MD: University of Maryland School of Social Work and Community Planning.

Bruscia, K. (1987). Improvisational models of music therapy. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher.

Bruscia, K. (1989). Defining music therapy. Spring City, PA. Spring House Books.

Burrows, D. (1990). Sound, speech and music. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Eagle, C. & Harsh, J. (1988). Elements of pain and music: The aio connection. Music Therapy, 7(1)15-27.

Goldberg, F. (1989). Guided imagery and music as group and individual treatment for hospitalized psychiatric patients. Unpublished manuscript. Salina KS: Bonny Foundation.

Kenny, C. (1982). The mythic artery. (3rd ed.). Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview Publishing Company.

Mann, T. (1949). Doctor faustus. (H.T. Lower Porter, Trans.) Middlesex, England: Penguin Books.

Nolan, P. (1989). Music therapy improvisation techniques with bulemic patients. In L.M. Hornyak & E.K. Baker (1989). Experiential therapies for eating disorders. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Nordoff, P. & Robbins, C. (1977). Creative music therapy. New York, NY: John Day Company.

Noy. P (1968). The development of musical ability. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, XXIII, 332-347.

Steiner, G. (1986). Language and silence: Essays on language, literature, and the inhuman. (7th ed.). New York, NY: Atheneum.

Steiner, G. (1971). In Bluebeard’s castle: Some notes towards the redefinitions of culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Summer, L. (April, 1988). Comparing genres of music for therapy. Proceedings of the Second Music and Health Annual Conference, Eastern Kentucky University, 94-105.

Summer, L. (1988). Guided imagery and music in the institutional setting. St. Louis, MO: MMB Music, Inc.

Winnicott, D.W. (1969). The theory of the parent-infant relationship. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 50, 711-717.