Queer as a Bell: Music Engagement and the Queering of the Psychotherapeutic Relationship

As we move into a new decade, many mind shifts are taking place in personal lives, in professional lives, and in social lives. Perhaps, it is time we also make a shift in awareness of our psychotherapeutic relationship with our clients, specifically, our power differential within the relationship.

For many years, therapeutic relationships (music and non-music) have existed in a traditional dyad setting, for some seen in a ‘normal’ v. ‘abnormal’ viewpoint. This viewpoint dates back to 1973, and before, when the American Psychiatric Association finally removed “homosexuality” from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This shift away from pathologizing the LGBTQ community did not end in one night, in fact it is still prevalent within many communities. In recent work with the LGBTQ communities, conversations have opened around queer theories though invitation to music therapists considering a framework for use with LGBTQ youth. Authors noted, that “this theoretical framework advances a conceptual model of queer music therapy that emphasizes opportunities for empowerment as opposed to assuming vulnerability and/or ‘fixing’ LGBTQ individuals.” Although the study these authors worked towards was specific to the LGBTQ community, this opened the doors for a new theory to arise, queer theory. 

Queer theory firmly plants itself in the experiences of what it means to be viewed as other, different, or less than in regard to sexual orientation and gender expression. By definition, queer is whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominate. With this idea of queer theory in mind, a shift away from traditional dyadic therapeutic relationships may begin, starting with a shift towards queered intersubjectivity where we may dismantle the traditional power differential and create a new fluid and open space in therapeutic practice.

Music psychotherapy emphasizes the role of music in an intersubjective framework. Throughout this framework, therapist and client are both transformed by music together, with client’s needs at the forefront. As music therapists, it is imperative for us to create this environment as it is not a passive act but one of transformation and action. To open this environment, Harris calls to us as music therapists, to critically examine what we share through self-disclosures with the client. 

In a queered field, the therapist and client co-create music together, therefore, while therapists may do their best to tailor the music to the client, they cannot escape bringing themselves into the music’s creation. Throughout this space, both the client and therapist are revealing themselves through spaces of expression and vulnerability.  When music therapists engage in co-creating music, they are allowing for the possibility of sharing in the experience and decreasing the potential of feeling vulnerable or uncomfortable. In this space, the therapist has queered the therapeutic relationship as the power of imbalance within the relationship has reduced. 

The author of this article, Harris, shares a personal example of queering the relationship. They share a client whose father experienced rages and caught the client off guard at a young age, leaving the client often feeling vulnerable and frightened. As a teen, the client’s father left the family and the client closed off contact with them for a very long time. The client’s father has now reached out to them and is requesting to reconnect. Through music, the therapist and client examine the client’s feelings toward the father. 

To begin the journey, the therapist selects a guitar and begins alternating progressions of minor chords to match the client’s mood. As the client begins to vocalize, while being supported by the guitar, the therapist joins in vocalizations, using a quiet and breathy voice to match the client. In unison, the client and therapist softly sing tones together. As the client’s voice begins to quiver and vulnerability comes to the forefront, the therapist once again matches the client’s voice. The therapist finds themselves using a childlike voice, quickly, the client joins in this octave sharing in sadness in fragility.  During this time, the music therapist continues to accompany the client’s journey, using chords underneath to provide containment for the nature of the vocal sounds. 

As the accompaniment grows, the client and therapists cries increase in intensity and volume, together their voices develop harsh edges and produce screams. The guitar accompaniment moves from a gentle arpeggio to intense rhythmic strums, very driven. Eventually, following the screams, the client and therapist dissolve into sighs and finish together, quietly. The client and therapist then reflected, verbally, on the experience. 

In this instance, the therapist does not share her personal history with the client, but rather remains in the moment with the client, with client’s goals at the front. The client reflected on the therapists “gentle pushes into angry sounds” that assisted in taking ownership of their own experiences of anger. Through this example, the ideas of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ along with ‘healer’ and ‘healed’ are disassembled through a queering of the relationship. 

This article focuses on the co-creation of music within a client-therapist relationship. However, a queer perspective may be applied elsewhere including as a means of communication. When implemented through queered intersubjective perspectives, co-creative music engagements may assist in engendering shared vulnerability and assist in a balance of power between the client and therapist. 

For more information please continue to www.centralohiomusictherapy.com or www.musictherapy.org. 

Sara May, MA, MT-BC

Harris, T. (2019). Queer as a Bell: Music Engagement and the Queering of the Psychotherapeutic Relationship. Voices: A World Forum For Music Therapy, 19(3). DOI: https://doi.org/10.15845/voices.v19i3.2674