Empathy and aggression in group music therapy with teenagers: A descriptive phenomenological study

Can music therapy address aggression in teens? In “Empathy and Aggression in Group Music Therapy with teenagers: A Descriptive Phenomenological Study”, Dos Santos looks into how teens may use music as a way to be empathetic with one another. 

Risk factors for aggression include a lower socioeconomic status and exposure to community violence. Secure and stable living environments, family cohesion, positive parenting, healthy relationships with peers, self esteem, and strong values, help to protect against aggression risk factors. 

Dos Santos worked with under-resources teenagers in South Africa who had been in aggressive altercations. Six teens agreed to participate in the study and attended eleven group music therapy sessions varying from 40 minutes to an hour and ten minutes. Sessions included improvisation (group members making up music in the moment), musical story creation, movement to music (with a focus on themes of power and powerlessness), and group songwriting. 

Dos Santos found that experiences of aggression are very dependent on each person and the situations that they may find themselves in, so attempting to understand the life of those who are displaying aggression is very important in treatment. Many of the teens participating in the study experienced grief, trauma, and abuse, which may have contributed to their aggression. Music therapy serves as a place of safety, belonging, and identity and may have provided a space of relief. As the music therapy groups progressed, the teens were able to witness each other’s expression of emotion and were able to welcome group members in an empathetic way. The teens were cautious at times, but through creativity and music were able to be vulnerable and connect with their peers.  

This study is important because it gives a look into specifics of music therapy sessions and how music can be a way for teens to express, communicate, and witness each other’s experiences in order to develop empathy. As Dos Santos noted, music therapy can provide a space where they could symbolically work with and through some of their trauma. 

By Jessica Fletcher, MM, MT-BC

Dos Santos, A. (2018). Empathy and aggression in group music therapy with teenagers: A descriptive phenomenological study. Music Therapy Perspectives,17(1), 14-27.