by Mirianna la Grasta

Timothy[1] and Grace are sitting face to face. “Tap.. tap.. tap.. t-tap.. tap..” A five year-old, Timothy keeps is eyes down on his coffee cup, his small fingers tapping on it. And so Grace goes: “Tap.. t-tap.. tap.. tap..” Just then Timothy’s eyes slowly rise to meet Grace’s.

Timothy is an autistic child, while Grace Watts is an NHS music therapist and the Development Director for the British Association for Music Therapy.

What is music therapy, then?

The British Association for Music Therapy (BAMT) defines music therapy as:

“An established psychological clinical intervention, which is delivered by Health and Care Professions Council registered music therapists, to help people of all ages, whose lives have been affected by injury, illness or disability through supporting their psychological, emotional, cognitive, physical, communicative and social needs.”

Ms Watts explains that music therapy in the UK is based on a musical improvisation that takes place between the client and the therapist. But people like Timothy are not the only ones who benefit from this kind of treatment because “music therapy is an intervention for all, from mums to be and their babies to people at the end of their lives”. People usually access it via social care and charitable donations, others are able to pay for it privately.

Being widely accessible and 100% natural, music therapy is becoming more and more popular in Islington, Hackney and Shoreditch.

Located in the heart of Islington, the now BAMT was founded in 1958 by French cellist and music therapy-pioneer Juliette Alvin as the “British Society for Music Therapy”. The charity doesn’t deliver music therapy, but is the biggest point of reference in the field, supporting education, research, therapists and patients.

Apart from the BAMT, the area hosts many centres that support the treatment: the East London NHS Foundation TrustLive Music NowDrake MusicManor Gardens and many more.

Schools, in particular, benefit from music therapy services offered by the NHS and the Nordoff Robbins centre. The Richard Cloudesley School, for example, has proved to be one of the most active schools in the area by offering their primary and secondary children a weekly music therapy session with personnel from the Nordoff Robbins centre.

Open the Music therapy UK interactive map

Why is music therapy so effective?

“Music is intrinsic to being human, it doesn’t depend on one’s own education or cultural background,” argues Peter Morrell, singer and Music student at City, University of London.

“What we do as therapists is exploiting the innate musical qualities of people to tap into the problems they have,” says Ms Watts. Music, in fact, is an innate non-verbal language and it’s especially useful to people who struggle to communicate with words. “In this case it benefits both the patients and the people around them,” she concludes.

Donald Wetherick, Clinical Tutor in Music Therapy at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, says that the treatment is so effective that the number of Music Therapists in the UK has almost doubled in size over the last decade, going from just over 500 in 2006 to 951 in 2016. The data is surprising if we consider that Occupational Therapists, Physiotherapists and Speech and Language Therapists are facing a decrease in the number of registrants per year, despite having access to Government funding for their training that music therapists don’t have.[2]

The treatment is usually run alongside other conventional therapies. “It’s not a cure, but it can help the healing process,” says Mr Wetherick.

Journey into the room of a music therapist…

 “We invite the patient, or patients, into a room with accessible instruments,” starts Luke Annesley, music therapist and former lecturer in Music Therapy at City, University of London. The therapist then tries to make the patient comfortable and waits for his response to the instruments. Once the patient starts making some sounds, the therapist would respond and try to create a musical dialogue with the person. “I would always tell people that they are in a therapy session,” he explains, “it’s better to be sincere rather than forcing them to do something they aren’t willing to do.

For other clips on music therapy visit BAMT Music therapy on video

A nebulous term

“Music therapy, however, is a nebulous term,” argues Evan Dawson, Live Music Now Executive Director.

Today “music therapy” is also a synonym of “music as beneficial”. This is the reason why people in Islington, Hackney and Shoreditch perceive listening to and practicing music as something that will “heal mental and physical pain”, “reduce stress and anxiety levels”, “make you feel happier and stronger”, “help you to cope with sadness and loneliness”.

This is exactly what Live Music Now does. The organisation has its main branch in Kings Place and trains professional musicians to play music for children with particular educational needs and older people living with dementia or experiencing loneliness. “We believe that live music can provide significant social and clinical benefits,” argues Mr Dawson. The charity, which runs around 3000 live music sessions a year, has recently launched a new strategy called “Bringing music to life (2017-2022)” in order to gather the community and ensure music plays “a greater role in our society”.

“Playing together also improves social skills, such as communication and respect for the other,” states Chas Mollet, volunteer at Wac Arts. The Hampstead-based charity supports inclusivity in the arts and media training, and works in co-operation with schools and charities in Islington to run state-funded music therapy workshops. Mr Mollet works with avant-garde technologies that enable people with disabilities to play music: “We try to remove all the barriers they might face.”

Whether it’s used as clinical intervention or a beneficial activity, music therapy has had a positive impact within the communities of Islington, Hackney and Shoreditch. “It may not be a cure, but you enable people to have fun, and all the positive effects will come along,” concludes Mr Mollet.

[1] Name has been changed for legal reasons.

[2] British Journal of Music Therapy, Stephen Sandford