View of Music, Meaning, and Music Therapy under the Light of the Molino/Nattiez Tripartite Model

[Original Voices: Theoretical Study]

Music, Meaning, and Music Therapy in Light of the Molino/Nattiez Tripartite Model

By Lia Rejane Mendes Barcellos (Brazil)

The subject of this paper was chosen for two reasons: the first one was to articulate Molino’s Tripartite Model with music therapy and, the second is to contribute to music therapy theory development.

In 1989, I heard the French musicologist Prof. Jean-Jacques Nattiez for the first time. At that time, although aware of the relevance of the relationship between music therapy and musicology, I had not yet realized the contribution that the studies about musicology, especially the ideas of Molino/Nattiez, could bring to music therapy. My studies in a special method of music therapy[1] led me back to musical analysis and, consequently, to a search for deeper knowledge in this area.

In 1997, in my studies in the Master’s in Musicology, I passed through the many models of musical analysis, including Molino’s Model, adopted by Prof. Nattiez. In those classes I had my first contact with the six analytical situation proposed by Nattiez (1990a) and I realized the relevance of Tripartition for music therapy. Then, I used the holistic communicative analysis in my Master’s dissertation (Barcellos, 1999). In 2001, when I heard Prof. Nattiez speak, I already had the basic elements necessary to make the relations I considered adequate between the Tripartition and music therapy (Barcellos, 2001). In 2003, I once again presented a paper making a connection between both areas.

However, only in 2005, after Nattiez’s course in my doctorate in music, did I have a deeper conception of Tripartition, understanding it better, ratifying my position in relation to its importance to music therapy and, finally, linking both in a more consistent approach.

Music therapy origins, its historical development and theory, techniques and the clinical practice in other countries point to the existence of two different applications: the receptive and the active music therapy. In receptive music therapy, listening is the exclusive musical experience to be lived by the patient. However, the clinical practice is very diversified and characterized, mainly in Brazil, by the patient “making up” music, (although [s]he, eventually, can bring, suggest or ask for musical listening, almost always combined with other activities such as singing, dancing or playing).

This patient acting, engaged in making music, characterizes active music therapy, or interactive, as I prefer to call it, by the music therapist interacting musically with the patient (Barcellos, 1992, p. 20). However, it is important to emphasize that for making music, in music therapy, it is not necessary for the patient to have had previous formal musical knowledge and that this musical making can be exercised through re-creation, improvisation and musical composition. Many patients who decide and have the intention to create melodies and lyrics or, sometimes only lyrics, working, during many sessions on these, use the latter until they reach the desired results. In this short article, I intend to focus only on interactive music therapy, in which the patient is "responsible" for the musical production – and the music therapist being, at the same time, someone who interacts with him, does musical interventions and receives his production.

Why Would Tripartition Be so Important to Music Therapy?

It is in the relevant paper Fait Social et Sémiologie de la Musique that Molino’s work inaugurates itself and that his Semiological Model is presented for the first time. In that article, the author refers to music and points out that there is not one music, but “musics”, not the music, but the musical fact that he thus considers from the concept of social total fact, coined by Marcel Mauss, i. e, “which mobilizes, in certain cases, the totality of society and its institutions” (Molino, 1975, p. 38). And, from there, the author concludes that a symbolic form is not constituted by only one level, but by three levels: the poiesis – which means the production and the esthesis, or reception – which are processes and by the trace, which constitutes the symbolic form, embodied materially and accessible to the senses.

The Tripartite Model (poiesis, esthesis, and trace) examines the characteristics of each one of these three levels, and makes the integration of them by the study of the links, which connect the immanent structure (the trace) and the other two levels (poieseis and esthesis). And it is this study between these links which will lead to a meaning attribution and to the interpretation [in the hermeneutic sense of the term] of the “meaning of the products and of the human actions”, as Nattiez (2002, p. 13) points out.

In the same way Nattiez considers “Molino’s Tripartite Semiological Theory” the most adequate way to explain the symbolic functioning of practices and human works in general and of music, in particular (Natties, 2002, p. 13),

[...] I consider this model one of the most adequate in order to ascribe the meaning, or the signs of contents of patient’s musical production [in music therapy], as well as to choose the music which could be used, because it takes in consideration both processes: production and reception and the relationship between them. (Barcellos, 2004, p. 110)

This could explain the difference in music therapy between musical analysis or music therapy analysis or musical reading.

In an article written in 1994, I refer to this difference in this way: musical reading[2] is the comprehension of the music of the session and music therapy reading or music therapy analysis is the comprehension of the patient through the music [s]he expresses or how [s]he expresses it – in relation to the musical parameters, to the choice of musical instruments, to the way of playing these instruments, and in short, in relation to the music therapy setting (Barcellos, 1994, p. 3). I also emphasize, in the same article that, at that time, there were no discussions or theoretical works about this subject.

In a paper presented in 2001 (published in Barcellos, 2004), I expand the music therapy analysis as being: “the musical analysis which is done linking the musical aspects produced by the patient to his life history, to his clinical history, to his sonorous/musical history and to his moment of playing.” In this same paper I link Molino’s Tripartite Model and music therapy – emphasizing its importance to this field. As well, I present Prof. Nattiez’ analysis situations pointing out that Molino’s three levels are relatively autonomous and that “it is possible to employ this Model to classify the different musical analysis families currently used according to the six figure cases” (Nattiez, 1990b, p. 55). Although I have already realized that the Tripartition helped in the difference made between musical and music therapy analysis, nowadays, after the classes with Nattiez, this paragraph would have a much more consistent explanation.

First, the musical analysis created by Molino/Nattiez, does not accept “only” the structural analysis or the analysis of the immanent level, as well as in music therapy, the exclusive analysis of the immanent level wouldn’t be the most adequate to explain who the patient is. This would only be possible with the inclusion of the poietic and esthesic levels, that is, the total fact. But, it is important to show Molino’s Tripartite Model:

Molino’s Tripartite Model

This could be represented in the interactive music therapy in this way:

Molino’s Tripartite Model and interactive music therapy

One should emphasize the trace, by the relevance that it assumes in music therapy, in a context where it is of extreme importance to understand the meaning of the patient’s expression, in order for the music therapist to comprehend the patient, and, consequently, to understand the therapeutic process.

Nattiez (1990b, 2002, p. 12) points out that “the human productions and actions leave material traces” which are accessible to the five senses. These productions can be a linguistic enunciation, an artwork, an aesthetic gesture or a social action, and have a material reality -- a form, constituting in itself a trace. These traces are symbolic forms that carry meanings to whoever produces them and, also, to whoever perceives them, i.e., it is possible to attribute a meaning to them. They are signs which constitute symbolic forms and remit to anyone different things from the sign itself: an object, an abstract idea, a sentiment, or another symbolic form (Nattiez, 2002, p. 12), such as: words, lines, forms, colors, even sounds” (Gilson according to Nattiez, 1990, p. 35).

According to Gubernikoff (2002), any trace, cultural or natural, in the universe of signs, can acquire meaning for someone because it has a meaning potency. The author explains that the idea of potency and act were elaborated by Aristotle who states that

So much in nature, as in art, all movement (displacement as well as qualitative change) constitutes the potency actualization of a being that only occurs due to the acting of a being already in act: the marble becomes itself in the statue which can be thanks to the interference of the sculptor, who already had the statue idea. (Aristotle, 1987, p. XX)

In music therapy, David and Gudrun Aldridge have carried out qualitative research in music therapy since 2000, in a Post-doctorate program, having the aim of “developing a narrative process in order to understand the therapeutic process” (Aldridge & Aldridge, 2002, p. 1). The research participants are adults, medical intern patients, cancer patients, psychosomatic diseases, and patients in palliative care.

In one of the papers written about the referred research, entitled Therapeutic narrative analysis: A methodological proposal for the interpretation of music therapy traces (Aldridge & Aldridge, 2002), the authors refer to the traces in music therapy: written material, a transcription, a case report, a musical score, or an audio or video tape, and point out that “these traces have to be interpreted; they have a meaning in a system of meanings”(p. 1).

So, it is important to think about the meaning attribution, due to its importance to music therapy.

The Brazilian musicologist Luiz Paulo Sampaio (2002, p. 1) examines “some essential aspects” of this symbolic system [which is music] and of its “meaning” and discourses about how Western thought is being developed in relation to the signs and the symbolic systems of the musical discourse referring to Molino/Nattiez’ Model and to the meaning attribution. And here it is necessary to present one of Nattiez’ assumption, according to Sampaio:

Any object acquires a meaning to an individual who takes it in, when he puts this object in relation to sectors of his/her experience, which means, with the set of other objects which compose his/er world experience.(Sampaio, 2002, p. 49)

What is the relevance of these three dimensions, to a paper which intends to study music therapy?

In interactive music therapy the patient is the author of a production which will leave a trace – and it is useful to employ Nattiez’ assumption here, with relation to the immanent level, being absolutely relevant to the patient production: “[...] no matter if it were used in a conscious or unconscious way [...]”,(Sampaio, 2002, p. 18) – to which the music therapist will (re)construct a unique meaning, among the many possible, considered by Nattiez (2002) as being even unlimited and being an inexhaustibility which supports the musical permanence.

In this inexhaustibility of meanings lies one of the great music qualities in being a powerful therapeutic element. Barcellos and Santos, in an article entitled A Natureza Polissêmica da Música e a Musicoterapia [The Polysemous Nature of Music and the Music Therapy], approach the issue of meaning (re)construction pointing out that in a society there are many possibilities for listening, [listening as [re]construction of meanings], but, not infinite, because culture and language create some historical boundaries which cannot be bypassed (Barcellos & Santos, 1996).

The possibility of (re)constructing meaning could be illustrated in this way in the tripartite model:

The possibility of (re)constructing meaning could be illustrated in the tripartite model

However, it is still necessary to observe that the music therapist – who is the listener of the meaning attributed by the patient through the trace – doesn’t receive the meaning of the message, but, (re)constructs this meaning. According to Nattiez this [re]construction of meaning depends on the experience lived by the receiver, or listener. But, it is necessary to emphasize that, in music therapy it would not be enough to go to the immanent level in order to (re)construct meaning. It is mandatory to take into account the process of production and the patient’s life, clinical and sonorous/musical histories’, which give us the dimension of who this addresser or rather, the author of this trace is, since Molino (1975) thinks it is a production and not just an emission.

Then, one would have:

It is also important to take into consideration the moment of the creation and the situation in which it takes place. It is mainly important to point out the statement of Nattiez about the fact of poiesis and esthesis being processes while the immanent level is organized in structures or quasi-structures. In truth, in music therapy an exclusively musical analysis of the immanent level would not be useful. Neither would it be possible to construct the meaning of the patient production through an external esthesics musical analysis or inductive poietics. Besides these, an external poietics should be added, in order for the meaning to be (re)constructed by the music therapist so as to acquire more consistency. This corresponds to what Barcellos calls music therapy analysis or reading, which differs from musical analysis, which would include "only" the analysis of the immanent level. Then, one can conclude that the analysis and the integration of all levels are extremely relevant in music therapy, that is, the holistic analysis.

But, still in relation to polisemy, it is necessary to point out that the Norwegian music therapist and theoretician Even Ruud presents a valuable contribution to the field. His contribution is that he considers the impact as one of the primordial functions of music and that its polysemic nature [can] “force us, sometimes, to open in the direction of areas not researched by the body and consciousness” (Ruud, 1990, p. 91). Ruud still says that new categories can be constructed from this amplified knowledge, combined with thought and reflection. And, going beyond this, the author points out that if this amplified knowledge includes not only aspects related to the mind and body then it also includes new knowledge coming from our relationship with other instances such as nature, social community, cultural and universal, i. e., there is an experience in which music can lead to personal changes. For this reason, the polysemic nature of music constitutes itself, from my point of view, as having an extreme relevance to therapy, because it is one of the many aspects which can promote personal changes, the final goal of every kind of therapy.

As I consider it extremely important to think about music therapy in relation to the Tripartite Model, I would like to emphasize a difference, with a didactic purpose, between the use, by the patient, of distinct musical experiences in which [s]he composes or improvises and on the other hand, the music already composed by other composers – musical re-creation.

In other words: when the patient composes and improvises s/he uses his/her own "voice" but when s/he re-creates, s/he uses the voice of the other -- the composer, to sing his/her "inner world".

As final considerations, some issues have still to be raised. The first one is that although Prof. Nattiez emphasized the relevance of the memory role in the use of musical re-creation, this aspect will be the object of later studies. Another issue of extreme importance will be studied later – paradigmatic analysis, proposed by Nicolas Ruwet, which is without doubt, the best one in my opinion, to be employed for analyzing the immanent level - the trace -  or the patient’s production in music therapy.

Prof. Nattiez refers to the existence of many semiological models, pointing out among them the translinguistic, the logical, the psychoanalytic, the sociomarxist, the structuralist, etc. In music therapy, the possibilities of basing the clinical practice on these theoretical constructs are many. Applications to psychotherapy theories are most useful. However, many theoricians intend to embrace the possibility of music itself being, at the same time, the specificity of music therapy practice and the foundation of this same practice.

Clinical Scene

In order to illustrate a possible application, I will offer one short example from a case study. I have had this patient under my care for music therapy sessions for five years.

Both Marina’s (pseudonym) life and clinical stories are mixed together in a most tragic way. Marina, the protagonist of a sound/role playing narrative of her own history, was born with an abdominal neuroblastoma.[4] When she was but 22 days old, she underwent a surgical procedure for tumor extraction and afterwards stayed for two months in the INCA [5] neonatal ICU, while being submitted to chemotherapy and radiotherapy, both treatments having been given rise to the well-known side effects and supervening distress. This further led to her separation from her mother during the first months of her life. She was released from the hospital two months thereafter, but her development was already compromised. She only started speaking at four years old and her psychomotor development was somewhat arrested. She was enrolled in kindergarten at the age of three and underwent two years of psychotherapy.

During parental interviews, her mother disclosed data to compose the girl’s “sound story”: she suffered from “horror of noise” (sic); she would never go to the water closet alone because she was afraid of the toilet flushing sound and would not use a hand dryer either. The mother sang children’s songs and popular music while lulling her baby and she was also exposed to “classical” music at home.[6]

Here we intend to discuss the recurring sound/role playing situation Marina brought to many therapy sessions.[7] I want to clarify that in music therapy, besides “structured” music employment, rhythmical/sonorous manifestations are also allowed.

Written records report that always, smack in the beginning of a session, “Marina goes to the cabinet and throws out all the musical instruments on to the floor, in a most noisy way.” Though described in different ways, this becomes a recurrent situation. Afterwards, Marina would perform other activities, like singing, playing some instruments, and dancing.

Therapy canons state that boundaries must be set for any transgressive situation, but in the present case I did not follow this protocol because I “felt” the patient “wanted to let me know something” by means of this behavior. Usually, this justification would not be acceptable either.

In any case, it is relevant to think about the trace(s) left behind by Marina when she was through with tossing each and every instrument out of the cabinet: both the visual and the sonorous. The first of these – though not taken into account by Nattiez, because this author refers exclusively to music, but certainly important within the music therapeutic environment as a complement to musical sound – was that the floor of the therapy room ended up totally covered by every sort of small and middle-size percussion and wind instruments. The second remnant was a sonorous trace, which was recorded on a regular cassette tape.

There was only one restriction proposed by the music therapist: neither the guitar, nor the electronic keyboard could be tossed on to the floor. And the patient respected this condition. But after these were taken off in a more careful fashion, the cabinet was then totally emptied, for all the other items were thrown out. Some of these instruments fell closer to the cabinet doors than others because they were different sizes and weights.

Many senses could be re(constructed) by the therapists involved, departing from the meaning the patient wanted to communicate. “A patient’s narrative about her complaint will not always impart its meaning in a direct way, but present it through a pattern recreation […],states Aldridge (2000, p. 5). Therefore, this particular patient could be demonstrating a feeling of rage; or she could be testing the music therapist to discover her reaction; or else she could simply be showing a willingness to break the instruments. But why? Many interrogative verbal interventions were presented, sometimes in singsong fashion, so as to glean an explanation, but Marina always responded in a negative way.

The music therapist and the trainee both repeatedly listened to the cassette tapes that had been recorded during the incidents and together they discussed the hidden meanings of the traces left behind, the sonorous chaos and the visual panorama. The sonorous chaos brought the visual aspect to the therapists’ memory. When the aural recurrence was meditated upon, the reception of this sonorous chaos led us to think about the situational stages. The patient (1) opens the cabinet doors, (2) tosses the instruments out, in a seeming fully disordered way and then (3) leaves the instruments spread out on the floor around the room. “But what, if anything, has this behavior to do with the patient’s history? What does she, consciously or unconsciously, intend to tell?”

Though I was not acquainted at that time with the Molino/Nattiez Semiological Model, presented above in an abstract format, the analyses I did during that period is compatible to this Model, so that we could employ the Tripartition in a systemic fashion and consider it as a pertinent tool for music therapeutic analyses.

I employed the Molino/Nattiez Tripartite Model using situational analysis, which takes into account the fact that there are three different types of analyses “that try to bunch together the symbolic specification, to wit, the poietical analysis (meaning), the esthesical analysis (sensation), and the neutral level (the music) (Sampaio, 2002, p. 51-52). To achieve this goal we employed an adapted version of Ruwet’s Paradigm Analysis (departing from the trace).

This method recommends that the process start from the immanent structure that is, a material reality, which will remain amorphous to the point in which it is captured by the analysis. The sound track left behind by Marina was made up of totally diversified overtones; the rhythms were random and irregular; when recurrences were taken into consideration the intensities spanned the range of possibilities. The sound results could always be seen as chaotic, the rhythms faced as always irregular, and the timbre overtones always changing. We can consider the above parameters as “constituent units repeated and transformed along the musical text [emphasis added]”(Samapio, 2002, p. 58), something that was adequate to the characteristics required by Ruwet’s Paradigm Analysis, taken into account within the music therapeutic context that all sound/rhythmic manifestations are also to be accepted as a “musical text”. These recurrences gleaned from the tape listening, configured themselves as similar to the esthesic inductive and external analyses, which taken as isolated by themselves were not sufficient for the construction of a proper meaning.

As time went by, a hypothesis began to take shape, from the moment when the productive process was included, that of the poietical analysis, considered by Nattiez (2002, p. 30) as interpretive, because “it assigns a pertinence to a structured phenomenon it poietically interprets.”

In the music therapy environment, patient case histories and the poietical process (the context and the situation) are the external information to be taken into account. Some of the queries posited about external information on Marina include: “Who is this patient and what her story is?” She is a girl who was born with a neuroblastoma. Is there any more disordered way for one to be born than that of coming to the world already bearing a cancer? “How were the first months in the life of this patient spent? Those traumatic experiences were hardly bearable.

After many comings and goings between inductive and external analyses, the relationship between the levels began to lend a shape to a previously unthought-of meaning: The patient was visually and sonorously “showing” or “narrating” the how of her birth circumstances. But, was this the correct sense to be extracted from the circumstances that the patient, sooner or later, would try to get into the cabinet so as to re-enact in a more orderly way, the event of her birth?

In a subsequent session, Marina did enter the cabinet and asked the trainee to close the doors, though this was not feasible at the time, because there were many instruments cluttered between the doors and the cabinet itself. The music therapist thought that the greatest opportunity granted her had been “spoiled” and would not believe this could happen a second time. However, she now had a new trace to follow and take into account – the patient’s willingness to ingress into the cabinet, something that could lead to the confirmation of the music therapist’s hypothesis that the patient needed to re-live her birth in a less traumatic way.

However, several sessions later the patient entered the cabinet a second time, getting herself into a shelf about half a meter from the floor level and shrinking there in such a way as to achieve a tight fit into it, and then she cried out, “Come in, Rejane, close the door, Nilson!”8 Immediately, I got into the lowermost shelf, the one below the one in which the patient was curling, while the trainee closed the doors. Now that the hypothesis of a constructed meaning was almost confirmed, I began to tap a heartbeat rhythm with my closed fist under the lower part of the shelf over which Marina was lying shrunken. We remained that way for some time, until the patient cried out, “Open the door, Nilson, and help us out of here!” The trainee opened the doors and I immediately stepped out and then, the trainee and I “took the child in our arms from inside the cabinet”. Confirmation that the constructed meaning was the proper one, though, had to wait until the next session. In that session the patient came into the room and immediately walked to the cabinet, where she asked the trainee to fetch her a small table, then she opened both doors and began to pick up each instrument carefully and laid them upon the table, while saying, “Come, Nilson, help me to straighten the room.”

Since then, Marina stopped tossing the instruments on the floor. However much she was used to singing along and improvising easily identifiable lyrics and melodies before that, probably neither these nor a verbal narrative would feel adequate for her to express her inner disorganization. That is why she needed to appeal to the crashing sound of the conventional musical instruments put at her disposal and then thrown on to the floor in such a way that she felt she could narrate her story as it was supposed to be presented.

That sonorous/visual manifestation through which Marina expressed herself by telling the story of her birth (as well as many others in her therapeutic process) was an audio/visual metaphor through which a phenomenon expressed the other. “Metaphors are best understood within the broad narrative structure […] which is a specific way to build or to configurate living episodes […] such as a story or a biography,” as was stated by Bonde (n.d.). The queries placed into movement, told and retold by Marina, ended up transformed without any need to be translated into words, for the patient demonstrated, either consciously or unconsciously, her comprehension of what had happened.

Though clinical examples of structured music employment could have been presented here, this particular instance was chosen precisely because it was so hard to [re]construct meaning. In this presentation of case material, we can state that a change in a patient’s sound expression, initially presenting the narrative of a situation lived through the first months of her life and modified by means of the music therapist’s understanding and support, can translate the inner change in that patient’s intra-psychic dynamics.

For Aldridge (2002, p. 14-15),

Narratives are a retelling of something that has happened in time. They are not exclusively past-focused, but refer as well to real events that are occurring now and the expectations that exist toward future events. In a similar way, musical narrative also occurs in time. Both narrator and narrative performer are active agents. Neither is passively re-living his/her past but interpreting an identity to the benefit of another person (the therapist). […]

Therefore, as affirmed by Bonde (n.d), music should be understood as a vehicle through which a patient can bring up his or her story or stories, “employing narrative as a means for self-transformation”.


[1] Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music.

[2] Today I would use music therapy analysis instead of musical reading, in order to make the text clearer.

[3]Diagrames submitted to Prof. Nattiez in 10/05/2005 in a personal interview in the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (Brazil).

[4] A malignant tumor grown in some part of the autonomous nervous system. Hoerr & Osol (Eds.), (1973, p. 421).

[5]Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of Rio de Janeiro National Cancer Institute.

[6] Data collected during interviews with Marina’s parents on March 1992.

[7] Sessions conducted during this first year of patient care were followed by a music therapist trainee, Dr. Niels Hamel, a German medical doctor who was also a student working with the article authoress in the Music Therapy Course offered by the Brazilian Conservatory of Music, on the University Center, Rio de Janeiro. Today, Dr. Hamel works as a music therapist in a clinic for autistic children located in Bielefeld, Germany.

[8] The patient could not pronounce the name, “Niels”.


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