Berklee Music Therapy Hack

A couple of months ago I had the opportunity to go to a ‘hack’. I’ve known about hacks for a while because my husband Tim often participates in them, but I’ve never had the experience of the late-night glow of laptop screens, widgets, arduino, raspberry pie and other junk food, or the creative approach to ‘problems’…. The Berklee Music Therapy Hack was set up with a range of ‘music therapy problems’, outlined to everyone by a group of Berklee music therapy students, as well as qualified music therapists. Tim wrote a blog post explaining the ‘Music Therapy Notes: More Reflecting, Less Wading’ App which we created. Here are my 5 thoughts on the experience:

1. It was so good to collaborate with Tim on this – we spend so much time talking about our work with each other – but we never really enter into each other’s work spheres. It was great to puzzle out the problem together, and although I felt at times like I was a spare part, sitting around while Tim did the actual coding (especially when he was in the ‘zone’), I was able to chat to different practitioners about the potential usefulness of this app (see Tim’s blogpost), and research possible rating scales that could be included.

2. I’m not the world’s most enthusiastic embracer of music tech (cynic alert!). So I did have the slight feeling that the music therapy ‘problems’ that were being posed at the beginning of the hack, weren’t really problems, or at least, weren’t music therapy problems. A lot of the technology was based upon eye-movement, touch screen, or light detection, reducing the physical interface that might usually be associated with a musical instrument. I remember a music lecturer making the point that a musical instrument is something we come very close to – we hold it under our arms, put it in our mouth, tuck it under our chin, the music is made with our own bodies. Whilst it’s great that technological solutions exist/are being developed for extreme pathological issues where physical movement is severely limited (people who have had strokes, locked-in syndrome etc) or who have extreme tactile resistance, I would like to advocate for more ‘acoustic’ music therapy ‘hacks’, which might include the ways music therapists often end up contorting their own bodies in order to facilitate their client’s participation in music. Sensory feedback of acoustic instruments is not something you get from touch screens, sound beam or other electronic instruments. How would a client make the causal link (in some cases) between their movement and a sound? When a client plays the drum, or a castanet, each instrument has its unique sensory feedback – the coldness of metal chimes, the slight stretch and resistance of the drum when you beat it, or the bounce of the stick on the drum. Some examples from my own work of using instruments in different ways are holding drums and tambourines at foot height for the client to kick the drum instead of beat it where arm movement is restricted, or, holding the guitar and changing the chords for a client to strum.

3. I wonder if music therapy problems are actually music therapist’s problems. If it’s difficult for a client to engage with the music, then I would first explore the possibility that the music being created with the client isn’t quite hitting the spot, rather than the ‘technology’ of the instruments. The responsibility is on the music therapist to create irresistible music with and for their client.

4. What I found interesting was the overlap with physio, speech and language, and occupational therapies. The other prize-winning hacks included a drum stick that measured the number of beats, through wireless technology – useful for encouraging someone to do a particular number of beats on a drum as part of an OT/PT regime. The overall winner of the hack was the device that through a combination of vibrating plates attached to your chin (or other bony place on your skull) and by lip-synching, the participant would have the experience of singing themselves (whilst it’s actually the music therapist doing the singing). I was intrigued by this because of its potential in music therapy that has a particular SLT slant – and for the combination of technology with something that gives you sensory feedback.

5. Another music therapy hack idea I really liked the sound of was an app which linked a music collection with mood. The user could select how they feel now, and how they would like to feel, and the app would select a playlist of songs and music to help the user regulate their mood state. This reminded me of Tia Denora’s sociological approach to music in Music in Everyday Life. We all use music to modulate our mood – to enhance particular feelings, for a cathartic effect (for example, if we are feeling low, we might put on some sad music to wallow) – or if we feel low in energy we might put on music that brings our energy levels up (for example, before going out on a Friday night). The app created during the hack would surely be a resource for people who have more difficulty with emotional self-regulation.

So, will I attempt to use technology more in music therapy practice? I already record music therapy sessions (video or audio, with permission)… and having recently explored songwriting with a young adult client group, I might now be tempted to explore music tech production with clients, where client-led, where music-led, where it serves musical-clinical aims. Forgive my cynicism. It may be more a reflection of my desire to get to grips with the basic tools of the trade, at this early stage in my music therapy career. However, I feel a healthy questioning attitude isn’t completely misplaced; a few weeks ago I came across ‘A Manifesto for Music Technologists‘ and it suggested these questions to ask:

Ask of any music technology: For whom will this make things better? How? Is it open or closed to creativity and innovation it has not yet anticipated?

Ask of any policy: Whose rights and opportunities are being promoted?  Whose are being eroded? What idea of culture does it presume?

Ask of any practice: Who is invited to join in? Who is left out? Where will it find support?

Ask of any organization: How does it help people come together? Does it exploit them in doing so?

My question is: does the technology get in the way of a musical relationship between a music therapist and client, or does it support and enhance that musical relationship?



4 thoughts on “Berklee Music Therapy Hack

  1. Deborah

    does the technology get in the way of a musical relationship between a music therapist and client, or does it support and enhance that musical relationship?

    It depends on how you use it! keep it subservient to the therapeutic/musical relationship – music therapy is probably the ultimate person-centred relational therapy (IMHO), with implicit interpersonal psychodynamic processes going on.

    Oh dear, too much jargon…

  2. Rachel Post author

    Hello Deborah – Thanks for your comment. As a music therapist I have to agree that music therapy is pretty special when it comes to relating between people ;)

    Do you have experience of using music technology in music therapy? I’m aware that the technology of acoustic instruments can fascinate a client to the detriment of the musical interaction (for example, becoming obsessed with the shiny texture of a cymbal), as can the sensations of vocalisations… so perhaps music technology isn’t so different from other instruments in terms of having the potential for supporting the therapeutic/musical relationship, and the potential to get in the way of it too…

  3. Deborah

    I’ve tried it with kids with learning disabilities, and with autistic kids – the distraction potential for them is huge, the most useful thing I learned recently was how to use Guided Access on the Ipad to keep on task! But I’d rather work with “live” sound unless there’s a real access problem for clients.

    Although as a cultural artefact, especially with youth, it can have a significant place. i’ve had good interactions with people, in very short-term mental health work, around their existing relationship with music, often based around technology.

    Here’s the thing – I think we overlapped as MT students in Oxford Health last year! I didn’t know you were around. Also I’m a very old newly-qualified MT so am cautious about technology partly because of fear!

  4. Rachel Post author

    Yes. Distraction potential! Absolutely. I know what you mean about ‘live’ sound. And wow, yes, didn’t know you were around in Oxford Health last year… will email…

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