Anatomy of a Musical Being: A Music Systems Theory of Music Therapy

By Paul J. L. Lauzon


The Question

Music. The word conjures, it evokes, it rings, it baffles. We know what it is, and yet we don’t. For some it is nothing but a background rumbling and for others, at the opposite end of the continuum, it is a deep mystery to be explored.

As a music therapist, I strive to understand music with clarity and depth. Otherwise how can I know what I am doing when engaged with the other, and still be true to myself as a musician and therapist?

For some time in the modern history of the profession of Music Therapy, the goal has been to answer the pragmatic question, "Is music effective as therapy?" This advocacy has been necessary to establish the profession of music therapy in the modern health care world. Everyday in her work, the music therapist answers this question – in her treatment planning, in her achievement of therapeutic outcomes, in her extended body of published research.

Also, we see the profession growing internationally; it would not be so if music were not effective therapeutically.

We come to the more difficult question. We ask, "Why is music effective as therapy?" We move beyond recognizing the phenomenon of music as effective, to attempt an understanding of why this is so. My purpose in this essay is to respond to this question of effectiveness in an authentic and comprehensive manner, one that will contribute to the ongoing dialogue in the community of engagement that is music therapy.

With this purpose in mind, it is helpful to mention that Aigen (2005, pp. 23 - 28) differentiates between three approaches to theorizing about music therapy: (1) recontextualized theory explains with concepts from other disciplines, (2) bridging theory uses terms from other disciplines in combination with those specific to music therapy, and (3) indigenous theory is original and specific to music therapy. For Aigen and others, a theory specific to music therapy would be "music-centered". Examples of those working to develop understanding concerning the therapeutic effectiveness of music, whose work informs me: Aigen (2005), Aldridge (1996), Bonny (2002), Bruscia (1987, 1998a), Eagle (1996), Kenny (2006), Nordoff and Robbins (2007), Pavlicevic (1997), Priestley (1994), Rider (1997), Ruud (1998), Smeijsters (2005), Stige (2002).

I believe that if one imposes a theoretical construct from another field of study onto music therapy, whether it is behaviorism or psychoanalysis for example (See Ruud, 1978), then one is essentially working from the "outside in." I agree with Herbert Read that, “If you are translating form in one material into form in another material, you must create that form from the inside outwards” (Read 1931/1990, p. 255). We are, after all, using words to describe another medium, music. The words we use need to resonate with the authentic experience of music therapy.

Definition of Music

To help determine the scope for the following inquiry I present this working definition:

Music is sound as time-ordered, trans-verbal play.

Sound is what is heard. Time is the “indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole” (Oxford). Ordered is methodical arrangement. Trans is the going beyond, the travelling to the other side of verbal, the language of words. Play is free action, considered as active spontaneity, rather than reactivity (Winnicott, 2005).

This definition of music is meant to allow a broad conception of music, one which includes manifest sounds from three identifiable musical realms: the music of culture (made by humans), the music of nature (emanating from the natural world), and the music of self (the music of the individual). For example, one may consider the different rhythmic characteristics of each: (1) the rhythm of nature is flow, continuous yet random, (2) the rhythm of culture is groove, a periodicity that is measured and coordinated among the players, and (3) the rhythm of self is literally pulse, personal and purposefully moving to maintain the steady state in both psyche and soma. These rhythmic attributes of music are all time-ordered, but in different ways, and so are included in this definition of music: sound as time-ordered trans-verbal play.

Music States

My path of inquiry is to follow the “impulse to reduce to clarity and thereby get a systematic and comprehensive hold” (Honderich, 2001, p. 16) on the nature of music, specifically as it affects the human reality. My underlying conviction is that the more we understand music, the more clearly we fathom what it is to be human, and vice versa. This conviction is based on a broader premise that, “Like conditions give rise to like results throughout the cosmos: this is the basic credo of our natural sciences” (Laszlo, 1996, p. 59).

This path involves the process of correlation (Tillich, 1967, I, pp. 59 – 61). What I am putting together in relation is music and humankind. I am not interpreting them as polar opposites, but rather as generating a mutual interdependence, both essentially (in possibility) and existentially (in actuality). For example, if human is the question, then how is music the answer? Conversely, if music is the question, then how is human the answer?

Perhaps more clearly, I am moved by another person making music and I want to know, what happens to her, to me when music happens?

This question about what is happening is one about correlating music and human. To do this I bring forward the concept of "music state." By this notion I mean the way music basically is in the human organism at a given time; it refers to the fundamental properties of this condition (Audi, 1999, p. 876). Music state represents a clear and simple concept for linking music and humankind.

I begin by creating a profile, making a list of the most significant attributes of music states in the context of music therapy. Generally, a theory of music therapy “which makes sense of these features is to be preferred to a theory which does not” (Ravenscroft, 2005, p. 2). (Elements of the following discourse borrow structure from Ian Ravenscroft’s excellent Introduction in Philosophy of mind, 2005).

The present question is what happens when music happens? And the answer I propose is contained in this list of fundamental properties of music states, as experienced in music therapy: (1) responsive, (2) expressive, (3) relational, (4) emotional, (5) cognitive, (6) neurological, and (7) changing. (In the following narrative approach Jones and Smith may represent someone engaged in music therapy, either as therapist or client; or Jones and Smith may also represent people more generally engaged in music, outside of music therapy. Both interpretations are possible.)

  1. Responsive
    Some music states are caused by states of the world. For example, Jones responds to a rhythm he hears by tapping his foot. This means that the music state is open to influence from the outside environment. Whether he realizes it or not, Jones is receptive to the musical stimuli coming from the music of nature and of culture. His organism is open to rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre, dynamic, and musical form. Music states are responsive.
  2. Expressive
    Some music states cause action. Jones sings; he plays a drum. He is able to send vibration out into the environment. He expresses himself. He redirects the energy from within outward. Why he does this is not clear at the moment. He just does it. Music states are expressive.
  3. Relational
    Some music states cause other music states. Jones sings and Smith responds. He is surprised that she responds like this, but she does. In this moment, they share energy, a trans-verbal understanding. This connection may lead to other connections. He has precipitated a condition where relationship may develop. Smith and Jones, Jones and Smith, together in time, each in their own musical state, yet sharing something. Music states are relational.
  4. Emotional
    Some music states have quality. Jones feels the music. He is enraptured with the sound. His phenomenal consciousness (Block, Flanagan & Guzeldere, 1997) feels now joy, now pain, now boredom, something. For a time he lost his hearing, and the quality of his music state was different, muted. His music state is steeped in emotion.
  5. Cognitive
    Some music states are about things in the world. Jones recalls the meaningful moments he has had with music. The music represents something to him: memory, context, image, metaphor, a symbol of longing. It stimuates his access consciousness (Block, 1997). Theories of musical meaning range from referential (music refers to something non-musical) to absolutist (music has no meaning but the music itself). Jones is somewhere in the middle, an expressionist; he believes that music as being like life, that “the elements of music are related to and share important qualities with basic human experience” (Wigram, Pedersen & Bonde, 2002, pp. 36-37). In this moment he experiences release of tension, conscious of his own awareness that he is experiencing the relaxation response. Jones’ music state is a thinking state, a web of cognition.
  6. Neurological
    Some kinds of music states are systematically correlated with certain kinds of brain states. Recent advances in neuroscience show that music is a global phenomenon in the brain (Hodges, 1996; Taylor, 1997; Rider, 1997; Levitin, 2006; Schneck & Berger, 2006; Sachs, 2007; Patel, 2008). We know that various areas of Jones’ brain are stimulated by sound, music, movement, memory, emotion. There is nothing going on with Jones that is not firing somewhere in his brain. But there remains what has been called the explanatory gap between brain states and phenomenal experiences, between the objective and the subjective. This is another way up saying that the mind/body split is still not resolved. In other words, “It’s one thing to give neurological explanations of the various relationships between our (music) experiences; it’s quite another to explain the (music) experiences themselves” (Ravenscroft, 2005, p. 185).
  7. Changing
    Some music states are correlated to personal growth. Jones is as he is in this music state. He was different before. He will be different in the future. So, where is the real Jones? What is his identity? Is it in his body, his memory? Is he motivated to change, or is he being motivated to change? Does this change follow a natural developmental course? How is music related to this change? Jones head is spinning with the questions. He knows, we know that music is affecting him. Every tenet of music therapy states that we are to bring about a positive change in Jones (See Lauzon, 2006a). Does this mean supporting him as he is, or redirecting him? Who gives us permission to do this? Music states are about selves in change (Pivcevic, 1990).

I suggest that the theory of music therapy we draw out is one which can make sense of as many of these attributes of music states as possible.

Music Systems Theory


A tourist in Paris comes upon three workers and asks what they are building. The first replies that he is laying bricks. The second says he is constructing a wall. The third, with a flourish, explains that he is building a cathedral!

This story speaks to the historical (and often interpersonal) tension between analysis and synthesis. Every discipline needs a constant source of new empirical data. This information must then be categorized and analyzed. Ideally, we take the next step, a turn to synthesis: not simply as speculation, but as a conjoining of various sets of seemingly unconnected information into a constructive understanding of the thing. The specialist becomes the generalist who is able to see the big picture; you examine the tree whilst remembering it is part of the forest.

One approach that is biased towards synthesis is General System Theory (GST). GST is a trans-disciplinary study of the common organizational invariances of different phenomena. In other words, in this approach one tries to see the similarities in various things and to describe the underlying systems that make them work together into a larger whole. Systems theorists see common principles in the structure and operation of systems of all kinds and sizes. This approach was pioneered by biologist/philosopher Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901 – 1972). His goal was to present an approach that could be adapted for universal application with a common language and area of concepts. Since the early 1950’s, GST has been applied to many disciplines in both the sciences and humanities including, but not exclusively, biology, psychology, economics, ecology, agriculture, social sciences, and philosophy (Davidson, 1983; Skyttner, 2001). I have appreciated Carolyn Kenny’s use of field theory, a category of systems theory, in her ground- breaking theoretical work in music therapy. I have been particularly drawn to the work of GST theorists Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1968) and Ervin Laszlo (1972; 1996) and will use this approach to help answer our question about the effectiveness of music as therapy.

The Musical Being

We saw how Jones had different kinds of experiences while in his "music state." Let’s give Jones an integrated identity as a living breathing "musical being." This kind of language has been in use for decades in music therapy. In a passage which describes the responses of the special child to improvisational, interactive music therapy, Nordoff and Robbins describe,

The music child is therefore the individualized musicality inborn in every child: the term has reference to the universality of human musical sensitivity – the heritage of complex and subtle sensitivity to the ordering and relationship of tonal and rhythmic movement – and to the uniquely personal significance of each child’s musical responsiveness. (Nordoff & Robbins, 2007, p.3)

This concept is at the core of Nordoff/Robbins, a model of music therapy that has ongoing impact in the community of care. To imagine a music child inside a disabled and disadvantaged child allows the music therapist to listen, to appreciate, to engage.

Suppose the music child were to grow into the music adult? I take liberty to call this changing musical person the musical being. As the title to this essay intimates, we move forward to outline the anatomy of the musical being. I approach this as an enquiry of we are as opposed to a view of I think.

I concern myself with being only in so far as I have more or less distinct consciousness of the underlying unity which ties me to other beings of whose reality I already have a preliminary notion. (Marcel, 1951/2001, p. 17)

Natural Systems

Jones in his combined music states has become a musical being. I have shown how this resonates with the concept of the music child. I come to the logical next step. Taking cue from systems theory, I now describe the musical being as having music systems. In the language of GST, a system is any entity maintained by the mutual interaction of its parts. Think now of how the early medical doctors finally began to understand the human organism when they determined that she had physiological systems, the circulatory, respiratory, digestive, and such. They were able to describe the substance (morphology) of each system and its various parts, as well as the functions (physiology) of that system as a whole. For von Bertalanffy, isomorphisms are “structural likenesses that reflect a commonality in the way the parts of a system relate to each other” (Davidson, 1983, p. 173). His notion of dynamic morphology is that substance and function should be treated as different approaches to the same phenomenon. This is a search for correlation of form and function in the human and musical domains.

I am not saying that musical systems are the same as physiological systems. They are different. In fact, as we shall see, they reorganize human anatomy and physiology in attunement to music. What they do share are common organizational features of all open working systems. For von Bertalanffy (1968) a system is either isolated from its environment (closed system), or continuously exchanging matter/energy with its environment (open system). As an open system, a natural system is one that “does not owe its existence to conscious human planning and execution” (Laszlo, 1996, p. 23). GST has identified these four organizational features common to natural systems: (1) ordered wholeness, (2) maintenance of steady-state, (3) self-reorganization in the face of challenge, and (4) hierarchical fit in a multi-holon reality. (Italic statements from Laszlo 1996).

1. Natural systems are wholes with irreducible properties. A whole possesses characteristics which are not possessed by its parts singly. A natural system has the quality of ordered wholeness.

2. Natural Systems maintain themselves in a changing environment. They are open systems in a steady-state. That means that they are self-monitoring and repairing themselves. Constancy is maintained by a continuous flow of input and output. The precise regulative mechanisms of warm-blooded creatures that we call "homeostasis" are one example of steady state.

3. Natural Systems create themselves in response to the challenge of the environment. When subjected to constant external forces, systems can reorganize their own constraints and acquire new dimensions in a process of adaptive self-organization. “The progressive transformation of organic species pushes the front of evolution forward” (Laszlo, 1996, p. 60).

4. Natural Systems are coordinating interfaces in nature’s hierarchy. In the natural world, organisms that last do so because they are hierarchically organized. In the course of evolution, hierarchies are more efficient than non-hierarchies. A natural system is part of a "multi-holon" structure. Holon is Arthur Koestler’s term for wholes that are also part of other wholes; it functions as a whole on one level, and as a part on the higher level. Below it are its parts, called the "subsystem", and above it is the "suprasystem", of which it is a part. “An organism displays not only a morphological hierarchy of parts but also a physiological hierarchy of processes” (Von Bertalanffy, 1952/1960, p. 42).

Music Systems

Apart from biological needs humans share with animals, we live in a world not of things but of symbols (Langer, 1957). One major realm of human symbol making is discursive, as in the communication of information and meaning in language. Music can be understood as more of a non –discursive experiential symbol making system. There is a deep intuition at work here. How is it possible that I make music unless I am somehow made as music is made?

Further, what is music to us? How do we understand it? Let’s go back to our definition: sound as time-ordered trans-verbal play. Each of the elements of this definition of music brings forward a part which is essential to the whole. In the long history of musicology we see these same dimensions of music being brought forward for analysis and understanding: rhythm (time-ordered), melody (trans-verbal), and harmony/form (play). Granted, the notion of harmony as understood in the West is not always practiced in the same way in the music of other World Music cultures. In these musical worlds, the simultaneity of tones is expressed rather in both polyrhythmic and polytonal group performance, a kind of horizontal rather than vertical harmony.

In concert with the above definition of music, I choose to frame the discourse concerning music systems with these three aspects of music: rhythm, melody, and harmony/form. I move the discourse forward by asserting that the musical being has three music systems called, (1) rhythmos, (2) tonos, and (3) harmonia. I deliberately give them each a name. I identify them as existing within the human organism. This systems model is presented equally as structural and functional, a dynamic morphology. I aim to present an organic conception, looking to the biological and musical properties and to the uses they have in humans.


Rhythmos is the system which makes the individual a rhythmic being, manifest in the basic periodicities and cycles of a human life. Jones would take solace in this description of his formative days:

Accompanied by the powerful drumbeat of the mother’s heart, the being is shaken to the core by these pulsations, which promise purpose, wholeness, and synchrony. Secure in this rhythm, the being’s own heart takes form and begins an answering pulse. As soon after birth as possible, the mother takes the baby in her arms and puts its head against her heart. The rhythm is still there, a reliable beat against which to measure the flow of growth and change. (Leonard, 1978, p. xi)

If we are to speak of rhythmos as a human music system, we would be well served to examine it according to the four organizational features common to all natural systems.

1. Ordered wholeness is essential to rhythmos. The essence of wellness in humans is an agreement of the moving parts so that the organism may work as a whole. In studying human disease physiology, we identify

such elements as rhythms of pain sensitivity, activity rhythms, cosmic rhythms, endogenous rhythms, muscular rhythms, pain-wave rhythms, rhythms of blood circulation and respiration, rhythms in sleep, breath, heart, and others. (Schneck & Berger, 2006, p. 142)

This brief list points to the rhythmic nature of all physiological systems and the necessity of coordination of these rhythms. There are cognitive rhythms and emotional rhythms. The emerging science of chronobiology tells of infradian, circadian, and ultradian rhythms. Neuroscience dwells in part on the frequency of our beta, alpha, delta, and theta brain wave states. Donald Hodges points out that, “Brain waves, hormonal outputs, and sleeping patterns are examples of the more than 100 complex oscillations monitored by the brain” (Hodges, 1996, p. 43). It is clear that there are multiple manifestations of rhythm in the human organism. This broad subject is the work of many researchers, and awaits a thorough meta-analysis within the musical systems theory. Suffice to say, rhythmos manifests as an ordered wholeness of great complexity and reach.

2. Rhythmos is an open system in steady-state. Our rhythmic system is constantly adjusting itself to maintain a biomusical homeostasis. It is an open system, subject to rhythmic influence from the environment. As an example, witness the use of sedative and stimulative music to both slow down and to speed up the organism.

3. Rhythmos has the capacity for creative self-reorganization in the face of challenge. Rhythm is something we get better at the more we do it. Michael Thaut points out that, “auditory rhythm improves the temporal, spatial, and force aspects of the total movement pattern in therapy and not just the timing of movement endings in coincidence with a beat” (Thaut, Davis & Gfeller, 1999, p. 238). Rhythmos provides a flexible system of many levels, generating new patterns for the arrhythmia of our lives.

4. Rhythmos is a coordinating interface in a hierarchical structure. All rhythms are forms of periodicity. The rhythmic subsystem is vibration, that level where sounds manifest and take shape. Vibrational units join together to become the holon rhythm, a regularly recurring motion that proceeds in time-ordered, alternating sequence. One important element of the periodicity called rhythm is pulse, the ongoing, steady, underlying beat. Another aspect of rhythm is pace, the duration of the space between pulses. Lastly, various holon-rhythms join together in the suprasystem cycles, the level where larger patterns emerge, patterns connected to many more natural systems. The cycles of musical rhythm interface with biological rhythms to make rhythmos.

Periodicity, the tendency of an event to recur in cyclic intervals, is one of the basic foundations upon which physiological function is sustained, and is an inherent characteristic in music. (Schneck & Berger, 2006, p. 138)

The process manifest in human rhythmos is similar to that of our physiological systems, in that this process in sustained by its underlying forms, for example, as the pre-established structure of the heart supports its function of rhythmical contraction. Von Bertalanffy describes this conjoining of form and function:

What are called structures are slow processes of long duration, functions are quick processes of short duration. If we say that a function such as the contraction of a muscle is performed by a structure, it means that a quick and short process wave is superimposed on a long-lasting and slowly running wave. (Von Bertalanffy, 1952/1960, p. 42)

Tonos is that music system which organizes humans as sound generating beings, particularly through the voice. Tone is a building block of melody, and being less dependent on cultural meaning than melody, the word tonos will allow for extended application in describing this music system. When Jones feels, he vocalizes. The range of sounds he makes presents a wide range of emotion. Here is a description of tonos when considering the four organizational features common to all natural systems.

1. Tonos is a system with ordered wholeness. Anatomically, the tonal system includes all of the sound generating, sound receptive, and sound processing aspects including: the lungs, vocal folds, resonators, and articulators, the outer, middle and inner ear, as well as the complex neurological connections inclusive of the auditory cortex in the brain. These physiological features work together so that Jones can vocalize. Not only does he sing, but he tunes his voice, he modulates his expression.

2. Tonos maintains itself in a changing environment. Notice how the breath literally supports the voice in keeping a steady state. Burrows observes that,

a number of different human sounds, the voice among them, result from the stratagem of tapping into the primary activity of breathing. Sneezing, snoring, snorting interrupt the flow of air at the nose instead of the larynx; wheezing and gasping are protovocalizations, gasping exceptionally taking place on the intake. (Burrows, 1990, p. 29)

The tonal system integrates human melody as a symbolic expression of basic emotion.

Along with laughter and sobbing, the limited repertoire of human calls include: groaning in disapproval; sighing as an expression of sadness and weariness, fatigue, or relief; and crying with pain, fear, and/or remorse. These six human calls and their variants are exclusively available to all human animals. Diagnoses and dysfunctions of any kind seem not to impede employment of these basic symbolic calls, except in cases of severe damage to the amygdala . . . (Schneck & Berger, 2006, p. 161)

We use vocalizations to make things right with the world, both within and without.

3. Tonos creates itself in a changing environment. It is clear that various aspects of tonos can change profoundly. One changing aspect, the breath is understood as key in all schools of mind/body wellness. Another set point for tonos is the individual’s "natural pitch." This is one’s characteristic drone note when speaking in a relaxed manner. As we change over time, so does our natural pitch adjusting to the emergent persona. Also, we expand our repertoire of the above mentioned six basic human calls. The outer voice reflects the inner being, telling the trans-verbal story of our lives (Austin, 2008).

4. Tonos is a coordinating interface in a hierarchical reality. The tonal system is based on vibrational frequency that we interpret as pitch. Each fundamental "ahh" that Jones expresses contains its own vibratory rainbow of "ahh’s." This world of harmonics is an organizational invariant, one of the most dramatically beautiful in all of nature – each fundamental frequency cloning itself into higher and higher realms. This subsystem of harmonics makes the holon tone, which in turn combines to make larger structures, a suprasystem of musical language. When listening to Jones, we hear the real connection between his music and his language, one involving emotive meaning and one referential meaning. The connection of music and verbal language is not merely a metaphor, but they share underlying biological similarities (Patel, 2008).


For the ancient Greek, the word harmonia meant “the joining or fitting of things together, even the material peg with which they were joined (Homer, Od. V. 248), then especially the stringing of an instrument with strings of different tautness, and so a musical scale” (Guthrie, 1962, p. 220). Roget gives these additional meanings for the verb to harmonize,

Be harmonious, be in tune or concert, chord, accord, symphonize, synchronize, chime, blend, tune, attune, atone, sound together, sound in tune; assonate; melodize, musicalize (Roget, 1977)

From this brief listing we see that harmony brings together all other aspects of music, particularly rhythm and melody. As we will see, the music system called harmonia easily takes on the four attributes common to all natural systems.

1. Harmonia is a whole with irreducible properties. By definition, harmony is ordered wholeness. This fitting together of parts so as to form a connected whole is strikingly similar to the concept health, which we describe as "a quality of wholeness associated with well-being." Musical harmony can be experienced as a vertical stacking of tones in one simultaneous moment, or as a horizontal counterpoint of interwoven melodic motifs. This unifying force has resonance in the human organism.

2. Harmonia maintains in a changing environment. This is an open system, constantly moving to maintain a steady-state. Consider the concept consonance, literally a "sounding together", and dissonance, a "sounding apart." By driving the sounds apart, dissonance initiates and maintains movement. Consonance brings the sounds together by reconciling them into a structure of wholeness. For Levarie and Levy (1983, p. 121), “The unison is actually the only consonance, compared to which all other musical experiences are dissonances of varying strength.” The biological mechanisms of homeostasis, and the more recent theory of homeodynamism (Rider, 1997), show the play of harmonia in a human life.

3. Harmonia creates in response to the challenge of the environment. Natural systems tend to go to ordered steady states, but most states are relatively unstable. In the play of harmony we select a few tones from the many, progressively developing new steady states which are more resistant to the dissonance than the former ones. “Our proposal regarding the relationship between music and its benefit for clinical practice rests on the proposition that our human identity is like the identity of a piece of music continually being composed in the moment” (Aldridge & Aldridge 1999, p. 85). We compose a life. We perform health. We bring together the disparate elements into an ordered whole that is new. “Self-organization radically modifies the existing structure of a system and puts into question its continuing self-identity” (Laszlo, 1996, p.47). Harmonia is a dynamic system, helping us to deal with the inner constraints we have to forceful challenges by creating an adaptive pathway to a new identity.

4. Harmonia is a coordinating interface in nature’s hierarchy. At the "eureka" moment of scientific discovery, in the peak moment of artistic expression, there is a sense of oneness that many call harmony. In this music system we alternate between microcosm to macrocosm. The subsystem is atomic, vibrational, the harmonic series. In the next holonic level we make harmony in music. Interestingly, the historical development of harmony in Western music coincides with the developmental structure of the harmonic series itself: unison, parallel fifths and fourths, triads, the chordal seventh, and on it goes. Harmonia is such that one suprasystem follows another:

We are natural systems first, living things second, human beings third, members of a society and culture fourth, and particular individuals fifth – we can make our own classification along such lines. In any case, we know ourselves if we know how basic characteristics of organized nature are specified to issue in that sui generis individual which each one of us turns out to be on close acquaintance. (Laszlo, 1996, p. 21)

Answering the Question

Music States and Music Systems

Our next, and not insignificant, task is to determine if music systems theory provides an answer to the question, "Why is music effective as therapy?" To accomplish this, I return to our original list of the most significant features of music states in the context of music therapy. Briefly put, we have characterized these as, (1) responsive, (2) expressive, (3) relational, (4) emotional, (5) cognitive, (6) neurological, and (7) changing. I have suggested that a theory of music therapy which makes sense of these features is to be preferred to a theory which does not.

Music systems theory has been developed with this challenge in mind. I will examine each feature of music states in light of the three music systems. This process will allow for further clarification of the systems in terms of structure and function, as a dynamic morphology. What follows is a description of the properties of music states in music therapy in the language of music systems.

1. Some music states are caused by states of the world. Jones responds to a rhythm by tapping his foot because his rhythmos is actively entraining with the outside environment. Musical systems are open to input from the environment. This input includes all aspects of rhythmos (pulse, pace, pattern, etc.), tonos (pitch, prosody, phrase, timbre, etc.), and harmonia (consonance, dissonance, dynamic, form, etc.).

2. Some music states cause action. In terms of active engagement in action rhythmos is the key music system. That being said, it is clear that both rhythmos and tonos have an actively expressive dimension. We can think of the two combined as a "tonorhymic" system. Jones sings; he plays a drum. He is able to send vibration out into the environment. He expresses himself. He redirects the energy from within outward. The balance of response (#1) and expression (#2) is coordinated by harmonia. We recall that all music systems are open systems moving to a steady state.

3. Some music states cause other music states. Jones sings and Smith responds. He need not be surprised that she responds like this, his tonos is engaged with Smith’s tonos, as is his rhythmos. This time-ordered, trans-verbal understanding may lead to deeper communication. He has precipitated a condition where relationship may develop. One excellent description of music at work in a therapeutic relationship is Carolyn Kenny’s The Field of Play (Kenny, 2006). In her work she creates a model of (what I call) harmonia at work in client/therapist engagement.

4. Some music states have quality. As mentioned earlier, tonos integrates human melody as a symbolic expression of basic emotion. When Jones sings and plays, he feels the music. He is enraptured with the sound. He responds more easily to some music because it speaks to him. This is beyond taste in music; it is about a deep psycho-bio-musical connection. All music systems have quality, but tonos is the key to emotion.

5. Some music states are about things in the world. Stephen Brown contends that music and language have evolved from one original "musilanguage" (2000). In a way, tonos is like that original form of expression, combining both the emotive qualities of music and the meaningful capacities of language. Psychologically, music is a real experience in the now. For Jones, music is meaningful, it represents something to him, stimulates his access consciousness. In the Theory of Multiple Intelligences Gardner (1993, p. 126) considers that we have a musical intelligence:

As an aesthetic form, music lends itself especially well to playful exploration with other modes of intelligence and symbolization . . . Yet, according to my own analysis, the core operations of music do not bear intimate connections to the core operations in other areas; and therefore, music deserves to be considered as an autonomous intellectual realm.

This is harmonia at work, stimulating access consciousness. Jones’ harmonia is an authentic experience in the moment, helping him to make sense of things. It is a force for balance in the dimensions of his life, coordinating his I think with I feel and I do, for example.

6. Some kinds of music states are systematically correlated with certain kinds of brain states. There is no question of this; we have defined the music systems as being embedded in the human organism as a whole, including the brain. We have already mentioned that recent advances in neuroscience show that music is a global phenomenon in Jones’ brain. Music systems provide one answer to the explanatory gap between brain states and phenomenal experiences, between the neural and mental awareness. Music systems have the capacity for both curing (an outer phenomenal procedure), and healing (the individual’s inner force for wellness), because as natural systems they are open to input from outside, whilst embedded and working within the person.

7. Some music states are correlated to personal growth. Music systems are flexible, able to facilitate change of all kinds. Musical milestones of development can be carried on throughout a person’s life. Harmonia provides a constant for Jones sense of his own identity. Music systems provide a structure where he can find motivation to change from within. At times, this change is sudden, unexpected. At other times it follows a natural developmental course. In an article on therapeutic improvisation, I have shown how change can be directed within a musical model of interaction (Lauzon, 2006b). In another essay, I have examined the notion of change in music therapy in relation to the mimetic, interpersonal, and music-centered theory groups, and have shown how change is possible in a music systems model (Lauzon, 2006a). Whether the music therapist is working with the notion of change from a supportive or a redirective stance in the therapeutic moment, it is my view that music systems can provide a cogent, true-to-the-work approach for clinical practice in music therapy.

In the foregoing I have tried to demonstrate how the music systems theory of music therapy makes sense of the phenomena of music states by providing a music-centered language to describe the core operations of a dynamic natural system.

Further Considerations


Figure 1:Why is Music Effective as Therapy?
Figure 1:Why is Music Effective as Therapy?

In this essay I have suggested that one very important theoretical question is "Why is music effective as therapy?" In answering the preliminary question "What happens when music happens?" I made a list of features common to music states. I said that a theory which makes sense of these features is to be preferred to a theory which does not. I insisted that Jones not only have music states, but that he become a musical being. I then determined that the musical being must have music systems. I articulated the four organizational features common to all natural systems. I described our three music systems, rhythmos, tonos, harmonia as natural systems with the four common features of natural systems, (1) ordered wholeness, (2) maint

enance of steady-state, (3) self-reorganization in the face of challenge, and (4) hierarchical fit in a multi-holon reality. Lastly, I gave answer to our original question of effectiveness by making sense of the features of music states with music systems theory. This theory was able to provide explanatory language for all of these features, the (1) responsive, (2) expressive, (3) relational, (4) emotional, (5) cognitive, (6) neurological, and (7) changing.


There are several good reasons why the working music therapist should consider music systems theory as a sound framework for understanding and explaining her work.

1. This is a music-centered theory of music therapy. It is a bridging theory in that it uses terms from General System Theory in combination with those specific to music therapy. It is an indigenous theory in that it creates new theoretical concepts (rhythmos, tonos, harmonia) with the intent to explain the work from the inside outwards.

2. While building on previous knowledge of musical structure, this approach gives her a new vocabulary for her work, one that is specific to music therapy.

3. The theory takes a general, synthesizing approach, respectful of both science and art. This allows for integration of all emerging research in the field. It builds on the ongoing contributions of all those who study natural systems.

4. The method used in this inquiry, of examining the features of music states, can be used as a common language to be shared with other theoretical approaches to music therapy. Also, the whole notion of music systems is intended to be generative of new realizations that often emerge through dialogue.

5. This theory has adaptability. A person entering into the study of music or music therapy may grasp the basic notion of music systems, while at the other end of the continuum, music systems can be examined in depth and specificity by researchers, scholars, and experienced practitioners from a variety of related disciplines.

It is clear to many in the field of music therapy that the new and emerging paradigm for music therapy theory is germinating in the notion "music-centered." Music systems theory is offered as a step along that path.

In conclusion: "Why is music effective as therapy?" I reply that we are made as music is made, with music systems. To be effective, the music therapist works with these music systems.


Closed system. A system considered to be isolated from its environment.

Correlation. Mutual relationship of interdependence of two or more things.

Dynamic Morphology. The view that morphology (form) and physiology (function) should be treated as different approaches to the same phenomena.

General Systems Theory (GST). A holistic way of thinking based on an awareness of the behavior of systems in general. The proposed discipline that would seek and apply general systems laws.

Harmonia. The music system which brings together all aspects of the musical being in ordered wholeness.

Health. A quality of wholeness associated with well-being

Holons. Systems in hierarchical order. Wholes that are also parts of other wholes.

Homeostasis. The living organism’s process of self-regulation, as in the regulation of body temperature.

Isomorphisms. Structural likenesses that reflect a commonality in the way the parts of a system relate to each other.

Morphology. The study of living forms.

Music. Sound as time-ordered, trans-verbal play. (Lauzon)

Musical Being. The individualized musicality inborn in every person. (Adapted from Nordoff/Robbins).

Music state. The way music basically is in the human organism at a given time; it refers to the fundamental properties of this condition.

Music system. A musical dimension maintained by the interaction of its parts in the human organism.

Natural system. An open system that does not owe its existence to conscious human planning and execution.

Open system. A system that continuously exchanges matter/energy with its environment. Includes all systems that are alive.

Periodicity. The tendency of an event to recur in cyclic intervals.

Rhythmos. The music system, which makes the individual a rhythmic being, manifest in the basic periodicities and cycles of a human life.

Steady state. A basic characteristic of open systems, in which constancy is maintained by a continuous flow of input and output.

System. Any entity maintained by the mutual interaction of its parts.

Tonos. The music system, which organizes humans as sound generating beings, particularly through the voice.

(Aspects of this Glossary are adapted from Davidson, 1983, pp. 223-228)


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