Five Forces That Have Influenced Music Therapy

Music therapy has developed as a profession and a discipline over many years. Similarly to any other profession, there are many factor that have influenced its development. Therefore, it is safe to say that music therapy does not look the same today as it did 50 years ago or even 10 years ago! What are these forces —as Leslie Bunt introduced them in his book Music Therapy: An Art Beyond Words—that have shaped and influenced music therapy?

Five Forces

Music therapist Leslie Bunt summarized the five “forces” of thought that have influenced the development of music therapy.1 They are:

  1. behavior therapy,
  2. psychoanalysis,
  3. an approach rooted in humanistic and existential philosophy,
  4. the link between the humanistic approach and the transpersonal, and
  5. culture-centeredness.

Above all, knowing about these forces and their influence on music therapy is an important step for music therapists in embracing a holistic approach to their work.

First Force: Behavior Therapy

Behavior therapy is the first force Bunt writes about. It had an influence on music therapy in its early stages and helped establish it as a profession. To clarify, its influence can be seen in the current use of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)CBT allows patients to explore the relationships between their patterns of thinking and their emotions and allows them to shape and alter those patterns.

Consequently, in music therapy this can be accomplished by substituting a certain action or thought using musical cues or exercises. The therapist asks questions such as:

  • What is the observable behavior that needs changing?
  • What are the settings where I observe this behavior?
  • Does this behavior need increasing or decreasing?
  • What new system of reinforcement can I introduce and apply to alter the behavior?

“A major strength of a behavioral approach is that no claims are made other than those relating to the clearly stated objectives. The approach cannot be criticized for being too anecdotal or subjective. On the other hand, the approach may be viewed as rather mechanistic.”

– Bunt, 2014, p. 41

Second Force: Psychoanalysis

The second force in music therapy is psychoanalysis. According to the American Psychological Association, psychoanalysis “promotes awareness of unconscious, maladaptive and habitually recurrent patterns of emotion and behavior, allowing previously unconscious aspects of the self to become integrated and promoting optimal functioning, healing and creative expression.”

Rolando Omar Benenzon in Latin America, Johannes Eschen in Germany, Edith Lecourt in France, Mary Priestley in the UK, and Florence Tyson in the United States were pioneers in psychoanalytical practices and theories in music therapy. In short, the role of a music therapist who actively interacts with the patient/participant ties into a psychodynamic process in which the dynamic and interpersonal relationship between therapist and client is an important part of the therapeutic process. On the other hand, a discussion about the influence and role of psychoanalysis today would also lead in a different direction.

Third Force: Humanistic and Existential Philosophy

The third force in music therapy is an approach rooted in humanistic and existential philosophy. There is a “belief that each person’s experience is unique to that person, and that all people have within themselves a force leading them toward growth”.2 Major proponents of humanistic therapies have been Carl Rogers (1902-1987) and Abraham Maslow (1908-1970). Carl Rogers was a proponent of a person-centered therapy that focuses on the therapeutic relationship, a relationship that is authentic, nonjudgmental, and warm. In music therapy following a Rogerian approach, the participant would express feelings and thoughts through music and the therapist would reflect on them and offer insights.

Abraham Maslow concentrated on the person’s motivation for growth and provided the idea of a hierarchy of needs. In this hierarchy, meta-needs are those for abstract ideas such as truth, beauty, and wholeness. For example, the Nordoff-Robbins approach and Helen Bonny’s Guided Imagery and Music are rooted on Maslow’s approach. In other words, the third force in music therapy had an influence on some approaches to music therapy and on the field in general.

Fourth Force: Humanistic and Transpersonal Approaches

The fourth force refers to the link between the humanistic approach and the transpersonal. In short, it draws from the field of spiritual, non-ordinary experience and knowledge in Eastern and Western philosophy and psychology. Music therapists such as Suzanne Hanser, David Aldridge, and Noah Potvin have explored further this link between humanism and transpersonal approaches in music therapy.

The transpersonal goes beyond the body and the mind and incorporates the spirit. To clarify, Czech psychologist Stanislav Grof has described the transpersonal as “experiences involving an expansion or extension of consciousness beyond the usual ego boundaries and beyond the limitations of time and/or space” (as cited in Bunt, p. 45). Noah Potvin argued that theoretical considerations of spirit and spirituality shape the therapeutic process, the therapeutic relationship, and the understanding of human health and wellness.3

David Aldridge also wrote about spirituality in music therapy in various settings such as palliative care, mentioning that it “integrates the psychological and spiritual aspects of patients’ care.”4 Sufi writers such as Hazrat Inayat Khan and mystic writer and teacher Rumi (1207-1273) influenced his writings. In other words, he has argued that spirituality is present in all religions and that it often involves action and activity, a recognition that encompasses the use of music in spiritual practice and in a holistic approach to music therapy.

Fifth Force: Culture-Centered Mindset

Kenneth Bruscia and Brynjulf Stige have been two strong proponents of the fifth force in music therapy. This force considers a culture-centered mindset important for the practice of music therapy. Essentially, Stige argued that music therapy cannot be performed in a culture-free environment.5 A culture-centered approach to music therapy is then tolerant and open to the different expressions of the individuals in their relationship to their context and to others. It recognizes that an individual is not only his or her biophysical processes but that an exchange of influences is always at play in the setting a music therapist is working in. Therefore, a culture-centered mindset takes this into account.


In conclusion, music therapy has been influenced by many forces throughout its history. Hopefully this introduction to these forces was informative! There is certainly a lot more that we could write about each force. Therefore, I hope you can subscribe to our blog so you don’t miss our next posts. What questions or comments do you have about these forces?


1 Bunt, L., & Stige, B. (2014). Music therapy: an art beyond words. New York: Routledge. The forces are originally from Kenneth Bruscia, but I am taking Bunt’s summary and discussion as a basis for this blog post.

2 Wheeler, B. (1981). The Relationship Between Music Therapy and Theories of Psychotherapy. Music Therapy, 1(1), 9-16. doi:10.1093/mt/1.1.9

3 Potvin, N., & Argue, J. (2014). Theoretical Considerations of Spirit and Spirituality in Music Therapy. Music Therapy Perspectives, 32(2), 118-128. doi:10.1093/mtp/miu022.

4 Aldridge, D. (2006). Music and altered states: consciousness, transcendence, therapy and addiction. London: Kingsley.

5 Stige, B. (2002). Culture-centered music therapy. Gilsum: Barcelona.

L. Samuel Gracida

L. Samuel Gracida

Samuel is Sam's Fans Operating Director and our primary blogger!

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