Practice and Policy, Context and History

By Brynjulf Stige

Human practices – including music therapy practices, of course – are social and situated, which means that we do not understand them fully unless we zoom in on human interaction in a given local context and zoom out on the broader contexts of policy and history (Nicolini, 2009). The ten articles of the current issue of Voices give us multiple opportunities for detailed reflections on this general statement.

One of the position papers presented in this issue provides us with a particularly clear example. Alexander Hew Dale Crooke (Australia) discusses music therapy, social policy, and ecological models, and he makes his point clear in the very first paragraph: “Just as Abeles … urges music teachers to emerge from their classrooms long enough to vote for political candidates that value music education, music therapists would also benefit from engagement in the world of policy.” He quickly goes on to qualify this statement: “While casting a well-placed vote might be important, for fields as fluid and multidimensional as music therapy, relationships with policy can be more complex. Because music therapists practice with a multitude of different populations, for different reasons, and in different settings, it is difficult to present one specific policy issue or context that is applicable to all. However, it is precisely this diversity that can make it so important, and rewarding, to engage with policy.”

In another position paper of this issue, music therapists Katrina Skewes McFerran (Australia) and Andreas Wölfl (Germany) reflect on music, violence and music therapy with young people in schools. The authors argue that music therapists to a much higher degree than what is typically the case today should be involved in critical discourse on relationships between music and violence. 

The notion that practice is social and situated invites reflections on culture and identity. In the third position paper of this issue, Emily Rose Mahoney (USA) argues that music therapy is inherently multicultural and that music therapists should try to contribute to social justice, equality, and acceptance of all populations. She grounds her argument in the idea that Individuals are products of their environments, an idea that would be challenged by scholars who argue that we also need a concept of human agency. I highlight this here in order to emphasize the role we hope position papers could have in stimulating critical thinking, discussions, and disagreement in the service of the discipline and the cross-professional practices to which it relates.

The request for critical thinking is clearly present in one of the research articles of this issue, where Sandra L. Curtis (Canada) writes about feminist music therapists in North America. “While the practice of feminist music therapy is currently small, it is a rich one which holds potential to contribute to the music therapy profession as a whole,” Curtis argues, and she suggests that “Its contributions could be particularly important in its understandings of the impact of the intersection of multiple sources of marginalization and privilege in the lives of music therapy clients and therapists alike...”

In a reflection on practice, Melody Schwantes (USA) writes about her experiences of working outside her own cultures with individuals who may speak a different language, and she discusses the consequent challenge of choosing interpreters and finding good ways of working with them.

When Carl Bergström-Nielsen (Denmark) – in the section Columns and Essays – writes about dialogue in music therapy, he zooms in on the interaction between client and therapist in the context of a therapy session, but he indicates the relevance of broader processes beyond interpersonal interaction and intrapersonal change when he starts the essay with reference to the famous reflections on the notion of work developed by Karl Marx. Humans and their worlds constitute each other reciprocally, and if humans influence nature, their own nature changes as well, Marx argued. Zooming in on the details of a dialogue is sometimes necessary, then, but never sufficient in our attempts of understanding music therapy practice.

The remaining articles in this issue of Voices illuminate music therapy’s relationships to various traditions and practices of thought, as they develop over time and across disciplines. The two pieces that take a historical approach include Erin Montgomery’s (Canada) interview with the Australian music therapy pioneer Denise Grocke, and Helen Brenda Oosthuizen’s (South Africa) report on the celebration of 15 years of music therapy training in South Africa.

In one of the three research articles in this issue, Luca Tiszai (Hungary) challenges music therapists to explore interdisciplinary landscapes. In the article, the Kodály approach is described as a crossroads of music education and music therapy. In another research article, Lars Ole Bonde (Denmark) writes about mixed methods in music therapy health care research. Ultimately, this article also in some ways explore practice as social and situated. The practice of research is not only driven by general philosophical ideas about epistemology and methodology, but also by the real world choices that we make as researchers when encountering people in a given situation (in Bonde’s case, female cancer patients in rehabilitation).

I started this editorial by claiming that we do not understand music therapy practices fully unless we zoom in on human interaction in a given local context and zoom out on the broader contexts of policy and history. The mission of Voices is to create a space where different stories can be told; from different positions and with different perspectives. Each story might have its own strengths and limitations when we try to zoom in and zoom out. When we explore them together, we might enhance our capacities to trail connections.


Nicolini, D. (2009). Zooming in and out: Studying practices by switching theoretical lenses and trailing connections. Organization Studies, 30, 1391–1418. doi: 10.1177/0170840609349875