Music Therapists Do It Differently: Sound and Silence

In this series, we are exploring how music therapists do live music differently than other musicians, even though it may not be easy to see. This is part seven of a ten-part series. You can find an introduction and links to all ten posts here. In a music therapy session, you should not expect to hear a wall of sound from start to finish. In fact, you may be surprised at how much “non-music” time happens during the session. Contrast a typical entertainment event at a nursing home with a music therapy session. Say you hire a pianist for your nursing home’s holiday party. You likely expect that person to show up early enough to start playing at the 2:00 party time and to continue playing until the party ends at 4:00. Yes, it’d be nice to see the performer tell jokes or share fun facts from the stage, but you probably don’t expect them to chat with the residents individually, and you might be a little irked if they stepped away from the piano for more than a couple of minutes. The entertainer is there to provide music, and that’s what you want to see. Plus, you probably expect the audience members to chat with each other as they enjoy their hot toddies. Music therapists work differently. Sure, we provide music, but our main concern is developing the therapeutic relationship through music. And, as anyone knows, a one-way conversation does not a relationship make. Plus, music therapists are conscious of working with folks who might get over-stimulated by music more easily than the general population. Thus, another way that music therapists do live music differently:

#7. Sound and Silence

Music therapists make judicious use of sound and silence in their work. These are two reasons why:

1. Music therapists focus on building an interactive relationship in the music.

Silence becomes an important tool in this effort. Here are just some of the ways we can use silence in our music-making with clients:
  • Stopping a musical phrase early to cue participants to “fill in the blank”
  • Waiting for silence before beginning a song so that everyone starts together
  • Silencing the therapist’s voice or instrument to allow a client plenty of room to lead the music
  • Leaving silence at the end of a song rather than jumping into a conversation or verbal discussion
  • Allowing quiet moments between chords or musical passages to leave room to breathe in music for relaxation
Using these tweaks and techniques can help to cultivate an interactive client-therapist relationship in the music itself, even without considering verbal interaction. (More on that one in the next post.) Breaking that wall of sound and allowing silence can become an essential part of the music therapist’s work.

2. Music therapists aim to avoid over-stimulation.

There are times when our planned music experiences are too much for a given session. That is when in-the-moment adaptations come into play, and the music therapist dials down the planned experiences to be less overwhelming, either by thinning the texture or stopping the music altogether. In fact, sometimes sitting in silence together is the best – and most musical – gift a music therapist can give a client. Insisting on filling our whole hour with songs can sometimes be counterproductive.

Music is made of sound and silence.

All musicians must be aware of how these pieces fit together to make a beautiful musical whole. For music therapists, though, sound and silence are first of all considerations in building the therapeutic relationship and meeting clients’ needs.

That’s another way we do live music differently.



  1. Kate Haberman, MT-BC on January 6, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    Thanks for this series! I have really been enjoying it and it has been immensely helpful in explaining music therapy to others in my workplace.

    • soundscapemusictherapy on January 10, 2014 at 1:07 pm

      I’m glad you’re finding it to be useful, Kate!

  2. Erica Gard on October 28, 2014 at 5:53 pm

    I agree strongly with everything you said! I am in my first year as a Music Therapy major and this helped me think a lot about what I will be doing in the next four years. I believe that the sound of silence can be just as effective as listening to music. Having moments to pause and let the client think and let the therapist think and relax can really improve the session. Also having silence gives the client time to respond and if you are doing an exercise where it is a call and response song that silence is great for them. Silence can help you take in all that a music therapy session has to offer and really enjoy and understand it.

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