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Complementary Song Therapy

The established health care profession of music therapy has been with us for many years. Community musician Nigel Neill argues the case for a new vocational approach to training that acknowledges the therapeutic value of music in community, social and nursing care settings, without the need to study at degree level.

It was a couple of years after we had started Minehead Street Choir and we were sat in The Old Ship Aground after a particularly fun evening of carols and songs with the local RNLI. One of the participants told me:

“I came to choir because of my mild stroke Nigel, a friend had said it might do me some good and when I got home that night I will never forget my husband telling me how much clearer my speech was.”

I was talking with Sara (not her real name) who had joined our choir some months before and it occurred to me that our music making was perhaps providing genuine therapeutic support to Sara’s quest for improvement in her speech patterns . . . and I had not even been aware of it! Certainly, I am not saying that Sara’s improved speech pattern from her singing that night was permanent and there is on going debate about the value of interventions of any kind where benefit may only be temporary; however, it got me thinking . . .

People sing together for many different reasons and there is a tradition in the UK of musicians, sometimes untrained beyond our learned and / or acquired musical skills, leading these groups in informal settings that allow for fun inclusive singing for all. Community singing groups are places of acceptance and, to use the terminology, ‘positive regard’ and there for anyone and everybody to enjoy the pleasure of singing and the warmth of social connection.

In recent years, particularly as the wonders of music are explored through the lens of

neuroscience, more and more people with health challenges in their lives are attending these groups off their own backs. Apart from the pleasure of singing itself, people might be facing depression, anxiety, life limiting illness such as MS or Parkinson’s Disease, brain injury or any number of other challenges in their lives. Indeed there is a growing awareness among GPs of the value of singing and a range of other creative, social pursuits and the concept of ‘social prescriptions’ is growing as a practical way of encouraging social engagement, creative interaction and self expression.

So, perhaps one of the responsibilities of informal music groups leaders is to be aware of this diverse range of participants and to perhaps be better informed and better trained as to the best way to use their music to the benefit of all in their groups. This can sometimes be a sobering challenge indeed depending on the health challenges faced by their participants.There is of course a wonderful tradition of community music and music therapy training at degree and post graduate level. For those who can afford this route, and have the necessary qualifications then this is indeed an established and very worthwhile way forward. However, for the rest of us perhaps it is fair to say that we are often taking our natural music making skills into sensitive settings where we are faced with participants who might benefit from a better informed and perhaps more responsible delivery. This is particularly the case for those who are leading such groups with perhaps a subconscious desire to put their own needs and even the needs of their music, above and beyond the wider and more sobering needs of some of their participants.

Is there an argument here for some practical training; training perhaps rooted in the person-centred tradition; the humanist values that celebrate the power of the individual, in this case our music group participants, to move towards a better place and use their own initiative and determination to find their own answers to the health challenges that they might face? Parkinsons UK hint at this sense of self determination in their description of complementary therapy. This is from their website: [if !supportLineBreakNewLine] [endif]‘Complementary therapies can be used alongside your usual medical treatment … [they] tend to take a more holistic approach. So, they aim to treat the whole person – mind, body and spirit – rather than just the symptoms … there are many reasons why people may use complementary therapies alongside prescribed medication, including: they feel conventional medicine isn’t controlling their symptoms; they view complementary therapy as a way of taking control of their own health; they enjoy the social aspect of having group therapy sessions, such as yoga classes, or they see it as a way of having time to themselves; they find complementary therapies relaxing. This can be very useful as stress can make Parkinson’s symptoms worse’ (Parkinsons UK).

Certainly there are questions to be asked here; song therapy, a ‘therapeutic intervention’ with no formal process of clinical assessment or evaluation; no formal record keeping or due process of supervision? These questions and more besides are at the heart of this debate. The answers are complex. The right answers will hopefully evolve as we face the challenge of establishing appropriate professional standards in this informal sector; answers that might provide the right way forward for those music group leaders unable to access traditional educational routes because of their lack of means or formal musical qualification.

There are of course clear limits to the therapeutic interventions that can be offered in informal music making settings. For example, the exploration of thoughts and emotions through words and music would indeed exceed these limits without the necessary music therapy and, some would say, counselling training. Indeed any training for informal music group leaders that clearly acknowledges these dangers and promotes professional practise; that establishes clearly defined lines between recreational and clinical settings and how this so fundamentally affects the nature and intent of the intervention; such training might be encouraged by all perhaps?

Sara’s disclosure to me of the reasons why she came to choir, and indeed the disclosure of many others too along the way have convinced me that, whilst some might disagree about what name we give the therapeutic use of music in the community, its therapeutic value for an increasingly large number of people facing complex health challenges in their lives is clearly established and should perhaps be recognised as such. Some would say the evidence is clear in this regard.

Maybe it is time to carefully define the range of therapeutic health benefits that recreational music making can and cannot offer and build professional practice as a part of accessible and affordable training programmes; further, and importantly, to provide naturally skilled music group leaders with the practical and affordable learning opportunities that they might deserve and which might complement this therapeutic reality. Perhaps a positive challenge indeed to those who so clearly have so much experience, qualification, empathy and positive intent to offer the rest of us.

To this end, we have developed a certificate in Song Therapy as an online training programme for singers, musicians and others actively involved in promoting and/or providing music making opportunities in community, social and nursing settings that is taken over a ten month period. The course is accredited by Complementary Health Professionals. A classroom based diploma course is planned for the future to provide relevant training when working in a one to one setting. Beyond this there are music and arts teachers, therapists, activity coordinators and others who might be looking for opportunities to broaden their own understanding of how music can be used most effectively to promote the well being of their students and clients.

The course includes a basic understanding of a range of different health challenges that may be

encountered when working in a community setting, how to identify particular health challenges that may benefit from song therapy and an overview of professional practice including relationships with healthcare professionals (confidentiality, professional boundaries, ethics, etc.). From a personal viewpoint, the course will allow you to become self-aware of the importance of music is in terms of therapy in a recreational setting and give you tools to ensure the social stability of your courses and to encourage continued attendance of your participants. On the same theme we introduce developmental psychology and promote the importance of self-care. We look at the physics of sound, harmonics and resonance and use this as a key to

understanding why certain types of music are so suited to sharing with others depending on the health challenges they might be facing. We drift into the world of neuroscience and the chemistry of the brain and how some of our behaviours, feelings, and thoughts are rooted in the mystery of our minds and the tapestry of our life’s journey. We take a brief look at emotion theory and consider the importance of emotions as a factor in the way we think and behave and as a possible measure of our well being. We enjoy regular gentle diversions into philosophy and suggest that there are certain philosophical traditions that we might adopt as an ethical foundation to our work, providing us with principles that we can depend on when times get hard. We explore person centred thinking through the prism of the person centred counselling tradition and suggest that we can learn from their values of empathy, positive regard and honesty, rooted in the philosophical traditions of humanism and the tao. Finally, given that music is such a powerful force in people’s lives we flag some of the potential dangers too, and make a very clear distinction between song therapy and music therapy, an important line that we draw at the very beginning of our study. There are ten modules to complete and ten assignments, which will be provided upon completion of each module.

Our qualification confirms that you have completed a comprehensive programme of study; exploring the many ways that music might be used therapeutically to promote well being, relaxation and good health. Finally, it is confirmation that the quality of your music making and human skills have been verified independently. It is very important to say that our song therapy course is rooted in the holistic education tradition. This means that we embed our study of music as medicine within a whole of life exploration. We acknowledge and celebrate the contribution of our mind, our body and our soul to the quality of our social and professional interactions with others in our lives, including those with whom we share our music.

For more information contact Nigel at The course is offered by Moorvale Creative CIC a not for profit community interest company based in the South West.

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