E. Thayer Gaston: Father of Music Therapy – Music Therapy History

Everett Thayer Gaston was born in Oklahoma on July 4, 1901. A trained clinical psychologist, he is now known as the “father of music therapy.” He was active in the 1940s-1960s and greatly helped advance the music therapy profession.

Gaston and Music 

Gaston first started studying music in college before switching to pre-medicine after a year. But he was unable to finance a medical education after college so instead, he taught music for a while. He later earned his doctoral degree in educational psychology in 1940 at 39 years of age. By the time Gaston became active, there were already some people using music in hospitals, albeit not in a systematic and scientific way. But a plausible and scientific use of music in medicine needed one key ingredient: a systematic body of research. And that is what Gaston dedicated many years to. In the 1940s, Gaston focused on the mental health benefits that the arts could bring to the worry and anxiety-ridden world he lived in.


“Music, a form of human behavior, is unique and powerful in its influence. …Human behavior involved with music has been studied by psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists. …music therapy will profit most from a multidisciplinary approach. …it (music therapy)…follows the path of a behavioral science.”

E. Thayer Gaston, Man and Music 1968).

Gaston’s Ideas on Music Therapy

E. Thayer Gaston believed that a music therapist’s objective is to change the patterns of behavior in patients. Therefore, the interpersonal relationship with the patient took precedence. Then in 1958, Gaston summarized his thinking as follows:

  1. Music is a means of nonverbal communication deriving potency from its wordless meaning.
  2. Music is the most adaptable of the arts being utilized with individuals, groups, and in various locations.
  3. Through participation or listening, music may lessen feelings of loneliness.
  4. It elicits moods derived from emotions and has the capability of communicating one’s good feeling for another.
  5. Music can dissolve fears of closeness because its nonverbal nature allows an intimacy that is non-threatening.
  6. Music, in most cases, is sound without associated threat.
  7. The shared musical experience can be a form of structured reality upon which the therapist and the patient can form a relationship with some confidence.
  8. Musical experiences possess an intimacy because listeners and performers derive their own responses from each musical experience.
  9. Preparation and performance of music can bring about a feeling of accomplishment and gratification.

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Gaston’s Ideas on Music Education

As an educator, Gaston was interested in providing insights to other educators. He believed that teachers should have some knowledge of the psychology of music as he wanted a profession strong in research. In 1960, as the Cold War was ramping up and more emphasis was put on mathematics and science in the classroom, Gaston served as a spokesman for the importance of music education. He wrote “The Place of Music in the Age of Science” where he argues that:

  1. Aesthetic experience is a basic necessity of health and development of everyone
  2. There is no absolute music. Each culture learns its own music and has its own criteria for its performance.
  3. Man uses music to transcend the material aspects of his life, and he uses music to integrate individuals into groups and to generate group feeling
  4. Man is able to engender positive feelings with music because it is, basically, nonverbal communication.

He also recognized the importance of a cultural matrix for the function and aesthetics of music. Therefore, he advocated the inclusion of “pop” music in general music education. Even nowadays, the voice of Gaston resonates as music education is in decline in the USA and globally.

Gaston worked at the University of Kansas, as Professor of Music Education and Director of Music Therapy. He was named to the Music Educators Hall of Fame in 1986 and established the first graduate degree program in the US for the training of music therapists.


Gaston looks at music not only psychologically, but neurobiologically and sociologically as well. In 1968 Gaston edited and published a comprehensive textbook on music therapy. Besides expounding upon his ideas, he argues that to understand the influence of music, one must learn about the nature of man from a natural and behavioral science perspective.

Gaston thought that all must satisfy “the need for aesthetic and individual expression, freedom from aloneness, socially accepted and appropriate expression, the sharing of emotional experience of a positive and “tender” nature, and the opportunity to come close to others in a nonthreatening situation.” He also wanted and thought that music education and therapy should make better people, not necessarily better musicians.

Perhaps we can finish with something that Gaston wrote in his last article before he passed away. And while it does not have much to say about music therapy, it does about living:

“To look every day for something new to think about, to verify with, or even to discard, is a fine way to stay young. To maintain the child’s nerve for the new and for creative organization, defeats old age. The young have eager eyes and ears, but the old spend more and more time defending the status quo. The wish . . . is for enough “thoughtful uncertainty” so that life remains the great invigorator, because as long as it does we remain young and growing, and more productive.”


Johnson, R. (1981). E. Thayer Gaston: Leader in Scientific Thought on Music in Therapy and Education. Journal of Research in Music Education, 29(4), 279-286.
L. Samuel Gracida

L. Samuel Gracida

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

1 Comment

  1. […] “In the 1940s, three persons began to emerge as innovators and key players in the development of music therapy as an organized clinical profession. Psychiatrist and music therapist Ira Altshuler, MD promoted music therapy in Michigan for three decades. Willem van de Wall pioneered the use of music therapy in state-funded facilities. He wrote the first “how to” music therapy text, Music in Institutions (1936). E. Thayer Gaston, known as the “father of music therapy,” was instrumental in moving the…” […]

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