How Verbal Interventions Boost Your Music Therapy Experience

You may even be doing it without even realizing it.

For many people participating in music therapy, the use of music during their sessions works as a gateway to make their feelings more accessible. Music therapists utilize what are referred to as musical interventions to engage with their clients. This may include, but is not limited to, playing music alongside a client, collaborating or creating music with a client, or listening to music together. While the use of music is at the forefront of music therapy, it is not all there is to it.

Music therapists are able to have thoughtful and impactful interactions with their clients solely through music; however, being able to articulate these thoughtful and impactful interactions with words are even more beneficial for both the client and the therapist. These interactions are referred to as verbal interventions.

Learn more about how verbal interventions can boost your music therapy experience by understanding:

  • What Are Verbal Interventions?
  • Types of Verbal Interventions
Music therapist playing guitar and client singing and utilizing verbal interventions.
Verbal interventions take on various forms and have multiple uses for music therapy.

What Are Verbal Interventions?

Opposite, but complementary, to musical interventions, verbal interventions are much more simple than what you may initially think.

Just like how musical interventions allow the therapist to encourage, suggest, or collaborate with the client, verbal interventions follow the same logic. As with traditional talk therapy, verbal interventions allow for verbal conversations about the music that the therapist and client are discussing. 

Verbal interventions work in various ways that allow the therapist to better understand where the client is coming from. If a client were to come in, play aggressive sounding music for an entire session, and leave, the therapist would not know if the session was helpful for the client or not. In the end, music therapy is about utilizing the music as a catalyst to talk about emotions and traumas.

A traditional set up of using verbal interventions in talk therapy.
Verbal interventions are most strongly associated with traditional talk therapy. However, they are also very important in enhancing your music therapy experience.

Types of Verbal Interventions

As with talk therapy, there are various forms that verbal interventions can take.

Not all verbal interventions look the same. Sometimes verbal interventions lead to interpreting the music, guiding the flow of conversation, reinforcing the impact of the music, or simply clarifying.

Interpretation - Perhaps one of the most important forms of verbal interventions, “interpretation based verbal interventions” focus on what the client is thinking about or feeling when listening to a particular song or playing a particular set of notes. These interpretations tell the therapist something that they would not be able to know without talking about it with the client.

Typically, an “interpretation based verbal intervention” begins with an open-ended question regarding the client’s response to a piece of music they have engaged with. Utilizing open-ended questions allows the client to lead the conversation in the direction that is most beneficial to them, while also inviting the therapist to know what parts of the song stood out to them the most.

Examples of interpretation based questions include: What lyrics stood out to you in the song, and why? How do you feel after listening to that song? Why did you pick this particular song?

Guidance - Verbal interventions that are guidance based are useful in two ways. The first is that they allow for the therapist to gauge where the conversation needs to go. Depending on the context, there may be sessions where topics have run their course, or the client is done talking about it, even when there is more to unpack with it.

The second way in which guidance based verbal interventions are useful are to nudge the client into understanding what they may not see, but the therapist is able to see. In other words, the therapist is able to guide the client to a realization or understanding that they needed, but were not conscious of.

Reinforcement - Reinforcement based verbal interventions work as a basis to verbalize what was expressed through the music. A pertinent example is if a client expresses a clear physical response, such as crying, so the music therapist would utilize reinforcement based verbal interventions to begin a conversation pertaining to that.

Reinforcement based verbal interventions are also very important to engage with following a spontaneous or impromptu playing session. They not only unpack the feelings surrounding what was played, but show how it felt to be able to create music spontaneously.

Some examples of reinforcement based questions include: I noticed you started crying during the bridge of the song, I wonder what was going through your mind during that section? You seemed confident when you began playing spontaneously, do you feel that you were more confident during it?

Clarification - Clarification based verbal interventions can be very beneficial to a music therapy session, particularly for the therapist. These interventions may follow other verbal interventions, in order to clarify something the client said , or to see where the session may go afterwards. Clarification verbal interventions may also follow musical interventions, clarifying what has been expressed during the client’s music playing.

Of course, there are also verbal interventions that are close ended questions - questions which only require a yes or no answer. Rarely used in talk therapy or as verbal interventions, closed ended questions are typically reserved for asking clarifying questions.

A record being played on a record player.
Being able to talk about why specific songs elicit certain emotional and physical responses allows you to get much more out of your music therapy sessions.

Verbal Interventions are beneficial to both the client and the therapist, keeping the two on the same page. Consider leaning into these verbal interventions in your next music therapy session - whether you are the client or the therapist.
If you are interested in learning more about the study of music therapy and verbal interventions, Dr. Dorit Amir at Bar Ilan University conducted an extensive research study. You can also check out the American Music Therapy Association for more information.

Dean Pinnell
Dean Pinnell is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh studying Communication and Fiction Writing.
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