View of Writing Music Therapy

Writing Music Therapy

By Mary Rykov


I respond in this essay to the difficulty inherent in using language to convey music therapy experience; and I speak from my experience of representing doctoral research. I recognize I am neither the first nor the only one to address the issue. This writing also addresses the emergence of creative representation in our literature. My goal is to illustrate and inspire writing about music therapy that is creative and nondiscursive. Such writing occurs by listening intently, contemplating, and responding.

This writing reflects the Canadian-English language poetics[1] of the culture in which I live and write; the Creative Music Therapy roots of my music therapy training; the psycho-spiritual (Bonny Method) focus of my community-based contractual music therapy practice; and the graduate research paradigm interface—arts-informed interpretive inquiry and quantitative research—I experienced during my doctoral and postdoctoral research training. This writing is neither definitive nor complete, but reflects my understanding of writing music therapy from a poetic stance.

Part One explores problems posed by language when discussing music therapy that emerged in the early North American qualitative research literature. Part Two portrays my understanding of the scholarship of phenomenological writing and the contributions of poetry as musical language to evoke phenomenological engagement. Part Three explains how fictitious, nondiscursive writing became the entrance to the production of arts-informed representation of doctoral research. Part Four introduces poetic inquiry, a genre of arts-informed research. I conclude that poetry is a suitable linguistic form for the expression of nonverbal, embodied music therapy essence, including the representation of music therapy research.

Poetry is what I start to hear when I concede the world’s ability to manage and to understand itself. It is the language of the world: something humans overhear if they are willing to pay attention, and something that the world will teach us to speak, if we allow the world to do so. (Bringhurst, 2002, p. 162)
A mind that is lively and inquiring, compassionate, curious, angry, full of music, full of feeling, is a mind full of possible poetry.… For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down for the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. (Oliver, 1994 p. 112)
My plea is for a greater recognition of the poet in each one of us—to recognize that figuration is not an escape from reality but constitutes the way we ordinarily understand ourselves and the world in which we live. (Gibbs, 1994, p. 454)

Part One: Communicating about Music Therapy is Difficult

It is difficult to speak and write about work whose foundation—music—is nonverbal. Words alone are inadequate to convey and discuss music and music therapy. Mary Priestly (1975) so eloquently described music therapy as:

A way of being, of relating at both non-verbal ends of the speech scale: subvocal relationship at fumbling pre-ego depth of being and supra-vocal communication at altitudes where words no longer suffice. (p. 15)

Priestly’s opening remarks have always moved me. She is saying that music expresses that which cannot be said in words. But we do think, talk, and write about music and music therapy in words. These words are the building blocks for music therapy reports, funding proposals, and research representations.

Gary Andsell (1995) addresses the verbal-nonverbal divide when he reminds us of ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger’s (1977) problem with using language—what Seeger called the “speech mode of communication” (in Nettl, 2005, p. 93)—for discourse about music because speech and music are two distinct, albeit related, forms of communication. Andsell (1995) applies what became known as “Seeger’s Dilemma”—of reconciling extrinsic speech knowledge with intrinsic music knowledge—to what he calls the “music therapist’s dilemma,” which he deems more serious (pp. 171-172). He makes a plea for a “musical understanding of music therapy, one not automatically justified by words and conceptual explanations derived from other treatment theories,” and also concedes that we do need words to ask questions regardless of whether there is a verbal component to the music therapy itself, or not (Andsell, 1995, p. 223).

Carolyn Kenny entered the music therapy profession in 1969 to work at St. Michael’s School for Special Children in New Orleans. There was no alternative then to the practice and research culture of the quantitative paradigm. This paradigm that only allowed for the measured counting of pre-existing constructs was too narrow to accommodate the richness and complexity of all she experienced and observed as a music therapy clinician (1998). Kenny’s solution was to discuss music and music therapy in terms of qualities, images, metaphors, and rituals, and to do so from multiple perspectives (1982; 1989; 1996; 1998).

Kenny (2006) acknowledges the challenge of language for music therapy: “It is important to emphasize the non-verbal nature of the music therapy experience. Trying to describe or explain it in ‘terms’ of verbal language … must sacrifice some of its essence” (p. 85).[2] Nor does the language she was required to use in medical charts authentically express her clinical music therapy truth. She calls on us to “cue our senses, intuition, and memories of our experiences in music therapy to be awake as we speak and write. And this language and description process seeks ‘essence’” (Kenny, 2006, p. 127). Helen Bonny (Bonny & Savory, 1990), while not addressing language, per se, best represented the experience of music in consciousness by means of visual depiction—the “cut log” diagram (Bonny in Kenny, 1989, p. 11). This visual figure describes succinctly what the prevailing research language of the times could not.

Although Carolyn Kenny’s was the first doctoral thesis to embrace a qualitative stance (Kenny, 1987), Ken Aigen shared her frustration with the limitations inherent in music therapy clinical and research practices that confined legitimacy to only the prevailing behaviour therapy and postpositivist research norms of those early days. Aigen’s doctoral dissertation (1991a) and subsequent writing from it (Aigen, 1991b, 1993; Langenberg, Aigen, & Frommer, 1996) called for music therapists to develop indigenous music therapy practice and research in our own language that arises directly from music therapy work. This theory, furthermore, includes the therapist’s subjective experience as essential to understanding the therapy process of the client, and gives the client a voice in the research report (Aigen, 1990).

Clearly, a qualitative research agenda was emerging. Amidst the research circles where Aigen and Kenny lived and worked, this pursuit was considered controversial in its day. Subsequently, however, the voice of qualitative research within music therapy has become loud and clear (Aigen, 2005a, 2005b, 2008a, 2008b; Wheeler, 1995, 2005).

Furthering the path forged by Kenny and Aigen, Michele Forinash and David Gonzales (1989) published music therapy research that employed a phenomenological method of listening procedures that served as a music-based framework adapted from musicology (Ferrara, 1984, 1991). It was particularly relevant to their research content (a nonverbal, dying patient) when interviews and other data collection techniques were not possible. The phenomenology employed by Forinash & Gonzales may be seen as a procedural method that is well suited for music therapy; variations have followed.[3]

Although Kenny’s research theorized the music therapy clinical process, it was also phenomenological in an approach that she says would be classified as “imaginative variation” (Kenny, 2010). There are, indeed, different versions of descriptive and interpretive phenomenology. For example, whereas Carolyn Arnason and Deborah Seabrook (2010) describe their methodology as reflexive phenomenology (as per Michele Forinash & Grocke, 2005), the methodology of my doctoral research is best described as an interpretive arts-informed phenomenology (as per Cole & Knowles, 2008). Linda Finlay (2009) notes that “competing visions of how to practice phenomenology stem from different philosophical values, theoretical preferences, and methodological procedures” (p. 17). No one method is superior. Rather, all are adapted to address the respective research questions being asked.

We are far enough down the music therapy research road now for there to be a qualitative music therapy canon. Similar to the Chicago or the Frankfurt schools in sociology, for example, we can speak of the New York/Philadelphia, British, or Nordic schools in music therapy, including their respective historical-theoretical antecedents and foundations. This writing differentiates amongst broad genres of phenomenological inquiry for the sole purpose of describing hermeneutic phenomenology as a writing method, particularly as this pertains to writing about nonverbal music therapy essence. I strive for simplicity; i.e., to articulate this understanding in writing that is accessible for all levels of music therapy practice.

Part Two: Scholarship of Phenomenological Writing

Phenomenology, broadly speaking, seeks as its goal the contemplation and description of experience—the “is-ness”—that distinguishes something for what it is, as opposed to what it is not. Phenomenological research answers questions about description and meaning. Phenomenology as a branch of philosophy in the German Continental tradition exists in contrast to the prevailing empirical philosophical heritage of the Scientific Enlightenment. The Scientific Enlightenment of 18th century Western philosophy (i.e., versus the Buddhist meaning of mystical Enlightenment in Eastern philosopy) is considered as the triumph of reason over the superstition of metaphysics and quasi-science of the Dark Ages. Enlightenment science is heir to René Descartes (1596–1650) (“I think therefore I am”), a proponent of mind-body dualism, and Emanual Kant (1724–1804), who proposed that methods in the physical sciences are normative. The current evidence-based research movement, in turn, is heir to these (Western scientific) philosophical roots. In contrast, Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) espoused mind-body monism, that body and mind are parallel attributes of the same substance (Damasio, 2003).

The beliefs inherent in empiricist philosophy—that there is one, external, and objective Truth that can be discovered by appropriate methods—takes as its subject only what can be directly observed. That which cannot be directly observed cannot be a subject of scientific investigation. Consciousness, for example, was not deemed amenable to study until relatively recently.

Of particular relevance to writing music therapy is the hermeneutic phenomenology of Max van Manen (1997) inherited from Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) (Heidegger, 1962; 1971) via Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) (Gadamer, 1989). van Manen espouses a philosophical stance that is subjective and value-laden, not objective. Heidegger’s hermeneutic phenomenology is predicated on Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s (1770–1831) critique of Kant (Hegel, 1931)—that epistemology (way of knowing the world) since Descartes is flawed. Heideggerian phenomenology describes an epistemology that is contextual and based on Dasein (existence), that all knowledge comes from being in the complex world.

It was from Edmond Husserl’s (1859–1938) experiential phenomenology (1970) that we get the term, Lebenswelt (lifeworld), and from whom van Manen derived the experientials of lived time, lived place, lived body, and lived relationship. Whereas Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology promotes the epoché—the bracketing out of background assumptions and biases—Heidegger’s existential phenomenology recognizes that background assumptions cannot be made fully explicit, and therefore cannot totally be bracketed out. Patricia Benner (1985) explains that “the scientist is always in a culture and cannot completely step outside the particular historical understanding available during his or her period” (p. 13). The most we can do is strive to make our assumptions explicit and set them aside to the extent possible. This is why Sandra Kirby and Kate McKenna (1989) recommend “writing your conceptual baggage” to clarify any concepts, goals, or responsibilities that potentially may colour the research process and findings.

Gadamer (1989), a student of Heidegger’s, also adopts Dasein and further claims there is no overcoming our standpoint, that there can be no absolute objectivity in interpretation. Instead of manipulation and control, Heideggerian phenomenology strives for understanding and choice. “Understanding, and especially understanding through language, is a primary form of being-in-the-world” (Woolfolk, Sass, & Messer, 1988, p. 17). Hence, we find in this Heideggarian phenomenology a scholarly place for writing.

Hermeneutics is historically derived from the interpretation and meaning of biblical texts. Interpretivism in the social sciences is defined as approaches to studying social life that accords a central place to verstehen (understanding) as a method of the human sciences that assumes the meaning of human action is inherent in that action; and that the task of the inquirer is to unearth that meaning (Schwandt, 2001). The meaning of music therapy resides in music therapy. The music therapy researcher begins with music therapy as a complex whole—not definitions and theories about music, therapy, music therapy practices, pathology, or patients. Nor can the researcher transcend their own standpoint. This was Aigen’s (1991a; 1991b) original contention for indigenous music therapy theory.

Neither Heidegger nor Gadamer claimed to offer a procedural method for the social sciences; nor does Max van Manen. He does explain the philosophical grounding of hermeneutic phenomenology; and he explains how phenomenological writing is a means of knowledge production. What van Manen does provide is a philosophical framework to anchor scholarly contemplation and writing.

Phenomenology as a research method is “most useful when the task at hand is to understand an experience as it is understood by those who are having it” (Cohen, Kahn, & Steeves, 2000, p. 3). The onus of distilling and communicating these understandings is in the writing about them. Max van Manen describes hermeneutic phenomenological human science research as fundamentally a writing method (1989) and a poetizing project (1990/1997; 1996) because it is through the reflective act of writing and re-writing that research analyses progress to understandings (1984; 2006). “Poetize” means to describe or express in poetry or in a poetic manner.

Laurel Richardson (2003) believes poetry is a practical and powerful method for analyzing social worlds that enables us to play with the embodied, musical aspect of language to gain new insights and perspectives. Poetry, as Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer (1970) says, is when words sing. Brynjulf Stige (2002) says poetry has potential for music therapy because it is closer to music than storytelling:

Poetry and storytelling are not only different literary genres, they are different strategies of meaning-making, and it is probable that humans have developed these and other strategies because they can be used differently and serve different functions. (pp. 156-167)

Creative writing is more than an artistic product; it is also a means by and through which knowledge and meaning evolve (Neilsen, Cole, & Knowles, 2001). Additionally, creative writing provides options to the crisis of legitimation and representation where the goal is not realistic, one-to-one truth correspondence but an understanding, an appreciation of opening a dialogue. Poetic use of language better expresses nonverbal experience. Poet Charles Simic says:

My hunch has always been that our deepest experiences are wordless. There may be images, but there are no words to describe the gap between seeing and saying, for example. The labor of poetry is finding ways through language to point to what cannot be put into words. (Simic in Zwicky, 2003, p. 85)

It is through writing that we uncover thematic aspects of lifeworld description. These themes, however, should not be confused with prescriptive (e.g., grounded theory) methods. Rather, van Manen describes hermeneutic (i.e., interpretive) phenomenological inquiry themes as being:

… more like knots in the webs of our experiences, around which certain lived experiences are spun and thus experienced as meaningful wholes…. Themes are the stars that make up the universes of meaning we live through…. Themes have phenomenological power when they allow us to proceed with phenomenological descriptions. (van Manen, 1984, p. 59)

Reading interpretive writing stimulates reflective writing because the reader must fill in and personalize what the author omits; the reader dwells “in this interpretive reflective space while reading/writing … tentative texts” (van Manen, 2002, p. 8):

[I]nterpretive phenomenological inquiry is cognizant of the realization that no interpretation is ever complete, no explication of meaning is ever final, no insight is beyond challenge. (p. 7)

Such interpretations are necessarily incomplete and lack final meaning. It is understandable that the rigour and depth of such interpretive texts invite scepticism in the prevailing climate of concrete, evidence-based accountability.

Compared to discursive prose writing, poetry is considered a diminished, lesser form that is potentially dangerous:

[E]ver since Plato excluded poets from his ideal republic, when poetry was attacked or denigrated, it has been as deceptive or frivolous rhetoric that misleads citizens and calls up extravagant desires. (Culler, 1997, pp. 70-71)

The potential for danger exists in psychoanalytic constructs such as transference and projection for both writers and readers of poetry. Similar to the function of condensation in dreams, poetry is compressed and concentrated; latent and manifest meanings warrant interpretation. Or, do they?

Jan Zwicky agrees with Freud’s theory of primary (jokes, dreams, music, lyric poetry) and secondary (linear, logical, analytical, judgmental) ways of processing experience; she disagrees, however, that dreams and poems need to be translated and analyzed (Zwicky in Geddes, 2006). By insisting that dreams must be interpreted, she argues, Freud delegitimizes them as a distinct species of knowing in their own right that appeals to the senses. Likewise, a traditional mummer’s saying is that if one could understand it, wherein would lie the beauty?

Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Archibald MacLeish (1926), wrote that “A poem should not mean / But be” (p. 38). The experience of the poem is more important than its meaning. Similarly, the importance of music and spiritual experience (e.g., during Bonny Method GIM) is in the experience, not the analysis of the experience (Walsh, 1999; Walsh & Vaughn, 1993).

Part Three: Writing Mr. Rilke

I introduce you now to unconventional music therapy writing. I also include potential consequences of such writing. But first I confess a long and intimate history with poetry that entails reading far more poetry than writing it. This reading increased through the years. Reading poetry balanced the long hours of reading research and became my balm, my reward.

A fictitious letter to poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1873-1926) emerged spontaneously during the process of analysis of my doctoral research about the meaning of a music therapy cancer support group for adults (Rykov, 2006, 2007a). I was struggling to represent the research findings of such a rich and profound project. I did not set out to produce an arts-informed dissertation (Garman & Piantanida, 2006; Knowles, Promislow, & Cole, 2008). Rather, the data made me do it. The data elicited this representation.

The data made me do it because narrating the story of the research group in discursive prose fell flat on the page in a manner that was not worthy of the participants and their experiences. The conventional dissertation chapter formula (Duke & Beck, 1999) was not working. The traditional literature review section particularly troubled me because the psychosocial oncology research literature tends to pathologize and blame patients for their coping styles such as anxiety or sadness (Burstow, 2005; Burstow & Weitz, 1988; Pilgrim & Bentall, 1999).

Also troubling for me is that some music therapy research focuses on interventions that privilege the research design to the detriment of music therapy service delivery. When music therapy methods are restricted for the purpose of adhering to a research protocol, the result is that patient choice is denied or diminished―as is mutuality―and power differentials between therapists and clients are skewed. What was missing for me in these literatures was a feminist empowerment standpoint (Hadley, 2006; Sprague & Hayes, 2000) that foregrounds the therapy clients and their point of view, and accounts for social, cultural, and interpersonal factors that impede or enhance resilience (Jordan & Hartling, 2002). Such an approach, to my mind, is salutogenic (i.e., promoting wellness) versus pathogenic (i.e., a focus on causes of disease and disorder) and strengths-oriented, rather than focused on problems and deficits. Randi Rolvsjord’s resource oriented music therapy in mental health practice (2006), for example, incorporates this empowerment perspective (Breton, 2004; Saleeby, 2006).

To accurately represent the findings of this interpretive phenomenological study I had to do more than tell. To communicate effectively I had to experientially engage the readers, to evoke in them nonverbal qualities similar to those experienced by the research participants. Such communication necessitated an arts-informed approach.[4] Carolyn Arnason and Deborah Seabrook (2010) write about how they were similarly compelled to explore an arts-based approach to their music therapy research.

I was widely reading in many literatures in response to issues arising during the research analysis. In the writings of educational theorist Maxine Greene (1995; 2001) I came across mention of a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke (1995) I had not remembered encountering in its entirety before: An Die Musik (To Music).[5] When I found the poem I could not stop reading it because it evoked so many issues relevant to the research project: phenomenology, translation, illness, existentialism, death, phenomenology of music, musicology, and music therapy. The more I contemplated the poem, the more questions bubbled up until, spontaneously, a letter to Mr. Rilke emerged in which I ask him to explain his poem (Rykov, 2007a). Rilke is well known for his book, Letters to a Young Poet (1934). Here I was writing a letter to a dead poet. After a good chuckle, I vowed to get more sleep and eat properly.

I shared this letter with my thesis group as a light-hearted diversion from what I thought was the “real” task of research analysis at hand. Fortunately, they encouraged me to develop the letter further. Much to my surprise this letter to Rilke was, in fact, the point of entry to my arts-informed doctoral thesis. It substituted for what might be the literature review section in a conventional dissertation format.

This was not easy writing. No writing is easy, not even for “good” or experienced writers. Or, as poet e.e. cummings said, “A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feeling through words. / This may sound easy. It isn’t” (Cummings in Geddes, 2006).

The more I read about Rilke, poetry, and phenomenology, the more I came to realize that this was, indeed, my thesis. I came to appreciate that poetry is the language of phenomenological writing. Furthermore—and serendipitously—I learned that Rilke died of leukemia. As such, this letter to him was all the more fitting to represent research with cancer patients.

I would be remiss in leaving this discussion about Mr. Rilke without mentioning possible consequences of unconventional writing. First, I remain excited by this writing. I do admit to omissions, typographical errors, and a regrettable choice of citation format, but I am proud of this dissertation (Rykov, 2006) and the three articles published from it (Rykov, 2007a, 2007b, 2008).[6]

There is certainly academic support for interpretive research within the music therapy community. I, however, did not have the luxury of completing a doctorate in a music therapy program because in Canada when I completed my doctoral degree requirements in 2006, no doctoral music therapy program existed. My doctoral research project was completed in a mixed milieu that spanned education and medicine. Creativity had its consequences because some did not understand it. This played out for me in a variety of ways.

First, I sat in the hallway outside the room of my doctoral defence for a full hour while one committee member vehemently argued against the scholarly merit of unconventional research representation—mine, or anyone else’s. Second, one of the two journal reviewers of the Mr. Rilke manuscript declined comments—including rejection—on the grounds that the writing did not warrant a reading, much less a review. There may, indeed, be more consequences yet to emerge. Surely there will be others who do not understand the rationale, intentions, and validity of creative, nondiscursive writing. Creators of genre-pushing research should know there can be consequences.

Regardless, I believe in the ability of arts-informed representation to more closely convey my doctoral research (i.e., the meaning of a music therapy support group for the adult cancer patients who chose to participate). Such representation honours the vitality and creativity of their experiences.

I acknowledge how the struggle to persist with interpretive inquiry in the face of resistance results in a lingering defensiveness. I am grateful for support that bolstered my fortitude to prevail and complete the research.[7] My integrity and authenticity as a music therapist-researcher remains intact: I did not sacrifice essence. At the same time, there are situations where authenticity needs to be weighed against other existential contingencies. For example, nondiscursive writing in an evidence-based milieu is a questionable pursuit that potentially forces a square peg in a round hole. This is unwise. Proceed in awareness and with caution.

I am grateful for the journal editors who published my nondiscursive work. And I am excited to see similar work incubating through and emerging from the music therapy community (e.g., Arnason & Seabrook, 2010; Austin & Forinash, 2005). I want to see more.

Are we ready for such new paradigm inquiry (Finley, 2003)? Such experimental forms (Glesne, 1997)? Or are we playing it safe, still justifying our existence through prevailing conventions? Or both?

Part Four: Beyond Mr. Rilke to Poetic Inquiry

I believe that, had I tried, I might have fit my entire doctoral dissertation into the Mr. Rilke letter. Now, five years later, such writing is called poetic inquiry (Prendergast, 2009a, 2009b). Poetic inquiry, a genre emerging from arts-informed research, is a form of qualitative research in the social science fields that has a long lineage of other names, including field poetry, research poetry, data poetry/poems, narrative poetry, poetic self-analysis, poetic representation, to name just a few (Prendergast, 2009a). In addition to discussing arts-based music therapy inquiry, Diane Austin and Michele Forinash (2005) suggest including poetry at the outset of a research project when formulating the research question. Lorri Neilsen (2008) in her chapter about lyric inquiry—what she calls the marriage of poetry with research—points to the opportunity of “honouring not only phenomena under our gaze, but the epistemic possibilities of writing in a new key” (p. 101). Poetic inquiry is used as a means to authentically explore and express experience; it is distinct from poetry therapy that uses poetry as a therapeutic modality.

Methodologically, in addition to van Manen’s hermeneutic phenomenology, there is the aesthetic phenomenology of Galvin and Todres (2009) to help explain the rationale for poetry—that it enables embodied interpretation through “alive” words. Similarly, van Manen (1996) claims that poetic language is a necessary aspect of phenomenological inquiry. Indeed, poetry is the most efficient and truest language to capture the nonverbal essence of lived experience. As such, the integration of poetry in music therapy discourse would contribute to the existing richness and diversity of music therapy writing.

Music therapists have explored literary theory to better understand meaning in music therapy praxis (Bonde, 2000, 2004, 2005; Rolvsjord, 2004; Stige, 1998). And I concur with Stige (2002) that poetry has potential for music therapy (see Part Two, above). Poetry is a superior form for writing about nonverbal, embodied music therapy essence because poetry is so inherently musical. No other writing form is as grounded in sound as is poetry. Steven Heighton (in Sarah, 2007) defines a poet as being a writer who leads with the ear:

Whether writing free verse or haiku or cantos or terza rima, whether it’s short stories, novels, or even journalism, poets are guided not only by the meanings of words but by their music. (p. 194)

Prose, on the other hand, is a superior form for advancing arguments and posing solutions (Geddes, 2006). Poetry and prose are neither inferior or superior to each other. Rather, poetry and prose are equal and feasible endeavours for their respective purposes (Rykov, forthcoming).

Poetry and music share many qualities. Julia Parker Dabney claims that music and poetry are both arts of sound; poetry is “the music of words” and is “itself a species of music” (Dabney, 1901, pp. 16-17). Poetry is “definite thought, wedded to music, which is indefinite (Professor Corson in Dabney, 1927, p. 378). Dabney (1901) says music and verse are twin sisters that are historically intertwined:

Man in the exuberant infancy of the race, instinctively danced, and as he danced he sang. The rhythm of his lips gave the rhythm to his foot, and the rhythm of his foot gave the rhythm to his lips, the two interchangeably linked. (p. 1)

David Reck (1977) concurs with Dabney when he says that “throughout the earth poetry and song have been interrelated, if not identical” and that “poetry without music is … unknown, inconceivable, in many parts of the world” (p. 249). He also points out that poetic form and rhyme—like music—differs amongst world cultures.

It is posited that much poetry that remains today had its origins in song (Dabney, 1901; Grout & Palisca, 1988; Reck, 1977). Poetry of the American Indian, the Finnish Kalevala and the Indian Mahabharata and Ramayana were all likely sung before they were told (Reck, 1977). Likewise, the invention of the opera recitative (1600s) and Wagner’s theories about music drama (1800s) perpetuate the ancient Greek idea about music as being one with spoken word (Grout & Palisca, 1988).

In current “spoken word” performance poetry, recited text is delivered with sing-song intonations and often accompanied by dramatic gestures. It is rooted in oral tradition and Black hip hop culture. As such, it has a different history than lyric poetry. But it is conceivable that this, too, hearkens back to the same ancient Greek practice of performing poetry.

Poetry and music share the same tendencies towards ambiguity:

Poetry … encourages us to embrace paradox and contradiction, the unexpected, the never-thought-of (and also, paradoxically, the universal, the shared, the familiar). Poetry began as song and continues as song. What poems share … is something in the manner of their telling that cannot be achieved any better way. (Ferguson, Salter, & Stallworthy, 2005, p. lix)

Similarly, both music and poetry are contextualized by silence (Bringhurst, 2006).

Poetry is musical because of the prominence of sound in its language. Song lyrics are a familiar example of musical sound in poetry, with prominent end rhymes. Rhyme is the decisive repetition of sound that occurs at the end of lines in English language metric verse (Oliver, 1998). Even “free” verse that lacks formal metrical design or end rhyme adheres to repetitions of sound in language that set up patterns of expectations (Oliver, 1994). These expectations may be comparable to the death and rebirth patterns in music (Kenny, 1982; Meyer, 1956). In the absence of metered end rhyme in free verse, internal rhyme (e.g., assonance,[8] alliteration[9]) and word sound (e.g., onomatopoeia[10]) become more important.

The word, poem, is derived from the Latin, poema, which in turn is derived from the Greek poiema/poema—from poiein, to make, do, create, compose. Essentially, then, a poem is a creation designed as a unit to communicate to the reader the sense of a complete experience. A poem is a “literary construct within an imagined framework” and is a “reasonable way to understand the world” (Oliver, 1998, p. 103). How better to express the essence of our corner of the world—music therapy experience—than through poetry, the most musical of literary forms? To illustrate this contention I share with you an original research field note (DeWalt & Billie, 2002) and its transformation to poetry.

Prendergast (2009a) would call this “researcher-voiced poem written from a field note” (p. xxii) an example of Vox Autobiographia or Vox Autoethnographia. I present the fieldnote excerpt, followed by a distillation of its content, to a condensed poem that results.

The fieldnote:

I am familiar with palliative care music therapy because I, too, trained and worked in this clinical area. So I am all the more surprised how deeply moved I am by the beauty I experience while observing this session: the intimacy of the encounter, the very privilege of bearing witness to the effortless connection of two musical souls—one music therapist giving and one palliative care unit in-patient receiving while, at the same time, fuelling the giving. The patient is unconscious. Her smiling face glows as the therapist entrains with her breath. Ours is a triple intimacy—the patient, the therapist, and me, researcher-as-witness, holding the space, vicariously experiencing the spirit bond between them. My breath entrains to theirs as I sit in utter stillness except for the shivers running down my back. (Rykov et al., 2008)

The distillation:

live music at the deathbed is essentially indescribable
because verbal and written accounts of music
are problematic at best and at worst
misleading, deceptive
knowing the progression improvises through
reframes of “I iii IV I, I vi ii V7
is technically correct
but not helpful
when other musical parameters
such as time, tone and pitch are
dictated by tremors, blinks,
tears, moans, and sighs
matter whether
instrumental, vocal,
improvised, or
through composed
technical proficiency alone detracts
from this elegance—
its sacred connections
and profound intentions
music performance conventions are breached
when the soothing quality of the music cannot be
extricated from the personal quality of the therapist
within the context of holy bonds
witness this power of music to instantly
transform the suffering of ultimate separation
to beautiful moments of awe shimmering down
the spine of an otherwise perfect stillness

The poem:

the music of dying
holy bonds shimmer
sacred intentions
through perfect stillness
in moments of awe

Where is the poetry in our published literature? Indeed, Carolyn Kenny, who first incorporated poetry in The Mythic Artery (1982), returns to poetry, metaphor, and image throughout her research and writing (Kenny, 2006). Heidi Ahonen-Eerikäinen (2007) concludes her explication of group analytic music therapy with a poem (p. 277). Similarly, Arnason and Seabrook (2010) employ creative writing with the risk-taking of their arts-based projects. I call for even more poetry-centred accounts because writing is such a crucial competency for communicating about music therapy research and practice.

I aspire towards poetry in all my music therapy writing, including case reports and condolence notes. I aspire towards poetry even when—perhaps particularly when—writing letters that advocate on behalf of clients for funding of equipment and services. I want the reader to really “get it,” to truly understand what music therapy means for the client.

In addition to when poetic writing may not be an appropriate or welcome fit (see Part Three), is the need to be mindful of the quality of the poetry written (Faulkner, 2007; Piirto, 2002). Excellent resources exist about poetic inquiry (e.g., Glesne, 1997; Neilsen et al., 2001; Prendergast, Leggo, & Sameshima, 2009; Richardson, 2003; Thomas, Cole, & Stewart, forthcoming 2011). Although poetic inquiry isn’t literature, per se, further to these resources, all poets must read poetry (both in one’s native language and in translation), read about poetry (e.g., Borges, 2000; Geddes, 2006; Lilburn, 2002; Oliver, 1994), and listen to poetry.[11] Familiarity with poetry can also aid lyric construction in clinical songwriting (e.g., Baker & Wigram, 2005; Pattison, 1995).

Rather than stifle the emergence of your poetic voice, I suggest it is helpful to begin writing privately prior to including poems in public articles, case notes, and letters. The reflexive journal (Barry & O'Callaghan, 2008; Schon, 1983) is an excellent starting place for music therapy students and clinicians, alike. It is helpful to workshop poetry with like-minded colleagues and/or with a poetry class, writing group, or writing mentor. Most important is to know that everyone is capable of poetry; and every topic is acceptable for poetry.

Poetic, figurative writing is a skill that everyone can achieve (Gibbs, 1994). “Poetry is not alien,” as Borges (2000) says, but “lurking around the corner. It may spring on us at any moment” (p. 3). Poetry is what happens when we get out of the way and listen intently. Bringhurst (in Lilburn, 2002) says:

Poetry is not manmade; it is not pretty words; it is not something hybridized by humans on the farm of human language. Poetry is a quality or aspect of existence. It is the thinking of things. (p. 155)

This thinking points to universal meanings beyond ourselves. The practice of poetry is a “way of leaving the self behind and getting involved in something larger” (Bringhurst, 2002, p. 162).

Laurence Hutchman (in Sarah, 2007) says it is “proper to think of the voice [in a poem] as the poem’s rather than as the poet’s” (p. 100). Gary Geddes (1986) in his poem, ‘The Last Canto’, says: “I have found poems / to be wiser and more honest / than poets” (online). Knowing that the poem has greater import than the poet helps me get out of the way of my own writing. In order to write well, one must first risk writing poorly (King, 2000). Most important, however, is the striving towards poetry, because when we strive towards poetry we strive towards music.

Indigenous music therapy theory building as initially called for by Aigen and Kenny is being addressed on many fronts (Aigen, 2005a; Bonde, 2007; e.g., Daveson, O'Callaghan, & Grocke, 2008; Lee, 2003; Pavlicevic, 1997; Smeijsters, 2005). Kenny (2003) calls for navigating uncharted waters. I contend that we also need to sail into uncharted, interpretive, subjective, and intersubjective poetic seas. Why?

There are already comprehensive guides for qualitative music therapy writing (Abrams, 2005; Aigen, 2003, 2005b). Aigen (2005b) points out that “each researcher must determine the writing form that best suits the findings of a particular study” (p. 210); and that such choice and variability presents both opportunities and challenges. Poetry is another possible opportunity―and another possible challenge.

Striving for poetry while remaining close to the essence of music therapy experience is not self-indulgent gazing reserved for reflexive journals only. We need to strive for poetry because the scientific ideal of objectivity veers us away from lived reality. We need poetic method to bring us closer to knowing and communicating the essence of being, particularly for instances of nonverbal, embodied experience such as music and music therapy. Witness, for example, the beauty of poet, philosopher, and musician, Jan Zwicky’s poetic contemplation: “What are you, music― / that in entering / undoes us? And undoing, / makes us whole” (Zwicky, 2005, p. 47).

Poetry, musical in and of itself, is a useful form for addressing the essence of music and music therapy experience. Poetry is furthermore invaluable because it enables the simultaneous expression of both the universal and the particular (Aristotle, 2001). Poetry is musical language well suited for music therapy.

Summary & Conclusion

In this writing I discussed the difficulty of communicating about music therapy. I explored the scholarship that supports phenomenological writing. I described my journey towards writing to Mr. Rilke in an unconventional research text. I introduced the arts-informed genre of poetic inquiry, including a poem condensed from a research field note.

The use of poetic language (e.g., imagery, metaphor, simile, rhyme) enriches writing, reading, and more authentically communicates nonverbal , embodied essence on behalf of music therapy and music therapy clients. Writing poetry is a creative and rich challenge we are all capable of. Like any skill, writing improves with practice. Admittedly, not everyone will be inclined to try writing poetry, much less persist with it. Poetry, however, is the most musical use of language; and it stands to reason that we use it to write about music therapy.

van Manen (2006) claims that “One does not write primarily for being understood; one writes for having understood being” (p. 721). I have written here because I understand poetry is useful for evoking phenomenological engagement when depicting music therapy experience. Let us understand ourselves and our work, and let us communicate these understandings through poetry. Let us aspire towards poetry to explore in a new key when writing music therapy.


[1] Poetics refers to ways in which effects and meanings are achieved in poetry. My Canadian poetics necessarily reflects the sound and meanings of my dialect and culture. I draw from and beyond Canadian poetry and literary criticism.

[2] In this writing I will define essence by its synonym, soul, to mean nonverbal, soulful, spiritual experience, rather than indicating an essentializing (i.e., all-or-nothing) stance.

[3] Please see Forinash & Grocke’s (2005) discussion of Phenomenological Inquiry for a fuller treatment of Kenny’s early use of phenomenology, Ferrara’s method applied to music therapy, and subsequent development of phenomenological music therapy inquiry.

[4] It can justly be argued that all music therapy research is, by default, arts-based. Arts-based inquiry dates back to earlier qualitative education research (Barone & Eisner, 1997; Dewey, 1934; Eisner, 1981). Beyond the excellent overview of this inquiry method we already have within the music therapy literature (e.g., Austin & Forinash, 2005 ) resources beyond the music/arts therapy literature are also available (Bagley & Cancienne, 2002; Ely, Vinz, Downing, & Anzul, 1997; Garman & Piantanida, 2006; Hervey, 2000; Knowles & Cole, 2002; Knowles & Cole, 2006; Knowles et al., 2008).

[5] An earlier translation of "An Die Musik" can be found in Carolyn Kenny’s doctoral dissertation (Kenny, 1987) .

[6] These journal articles may be accessed electronically from their publishers for a fee, or free of charge for students and faculty through the electronic scholar’s portal of university libraries. The manuscripts are available electronically at

[7] In addition to the academic support of my doctoral committee I received generous support from various programs of the Canadian Cancer Society for doctoral, postdoctoral, and publication assistance.

[8] Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds within words or lines of verse that create a near-rhyme (Oliver, 1994).

[9] Alliteration is the repetition of consonants, usually the initial sounds of words in a line or lines of verse (Oliver, 1994).

[10] Onomatopoeia is a word that sounds like what it represents (Oliver, 1994). As I complete this writing during the 2010 FIFA World Cup of Soccer, the word, vuvuzela (stadium horn), comes to mind as a loose example.

[11] There is much spoken poetry that can be accessed on-line in English; I trust there are comparable web resources available in many languages.


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I express sincere thanks to poet Sheila Stewart, music therapists Carolyn Kenny, Ken Aigen, and anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this essay.

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