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A personal reflection from Emily Carlson, PhD, co-founder of the Music Therapy Friendship Initiative

Although the Music Therapy Friendship Initiative is only a few years old, the idea for it has been with me for more than a decade. After abandoning the cut-throat competitive world of classical performance, I ended up studying music therapy at Western Michigan University more by luck than anything. I knew that I wanted to do something worthwhile with my life, and didn’t want the years I had spent seriously studying violin and piano to go to waste, so although I knew little about it, music therapy sounded like a perfect choice.

On the first day of my first class, we opened Michael Thaut’s book Rhythm, Music and the Brain and learned about audio priming of the motor system, the (still, to me) incredible power of a heard rhythm to help organize movement of the human body. We went on to learn that music, unlike language, is processed in many parts of the brain, which gives rise to the seemingly (and again still, to me) miraculous fact that people who lose the ability to speak due to injury or illness can often still sing perfectly. In a bit of real-life foreshadowing, my favorite classes by far were Music Psychology and Music Perception, in which we delved into the science of how music affects the human body and mind, and even carried out a small research project. I discovered the Music Scientiae and Psychology of Music online during one late-night homework session, and realized couldn’t imagine a job any cooler than being a scientist who studied music.

We were taught a lot of science, but we were also taught a lot of advocacy, and something I would later learn to call discipline boundaries. How to dispell the many misconceptions of what music therapy is and what music therapists do. How to correct people who incorrectly refer to merely listening to or playing music as ‘music therapy,’ and people who mistakenly referred to us as ‘musical therapists.’ How to decide whether a certain practice does or does not qualify as music therapy. I have a very clear memory of a final exam during my junior year, which consisted of having to respond to an imaginary scenario in which a hypothetical uncle expresses incredulity about my chosen career path. It often seemed that at least half the job of a music therapist was to be constantly defending the borders and reputation of music therapy to the outside world.

Although they were clearly intertwined, the advocacy branch of my music therapy education felt at odds with the scientific branch. The research was exciting and had amazing things to say about the effects of music; the advocacy, on the other hand, felt insecure and defensive. If we had all this good scientific research about the effects of music on the human body and brain, why were we being prepared to be members of a field under constant threat? Most medical doctors don’t go around making empassioned statements about how they believe in the power of antibiotics, after all. Why should a field that seemed to me to be so clearly grounded in evidence be forced to proselytize? Why was the science of music not enough?

Unsurprisingly, after just a few years in the clinical world, I ended up attending graduate school not in music therapy, but moving to Finland for a program at the University of Jyväskylä called Music, Mind and Technology. I was excited not only for the program itself, but that we shared a building and some classes with the Music TherapyMaster’s program. However, I quickly became frustrated that so few MMT people, both students and teachers, seemed to have so little awareness of how their work related to music therapy; in fact, to have little awareness of music therapy at all. I was also frustrated that, in nearly all cases, MMT students chose thesis topics that involved quantitative research while MT students chose qualitative research, as though these research approaches were somehow inherent to the definition of each field, furthering the perception that we had little in common. Clearly, physical proximity was not the main factor preventing music science and music therapy from being fully part of each other’s worlds.

The final straw came in the middle of my PhD, when, along my friend and now MTFI-co-founder Olivier, I happened to sit down in the cafeteria next to some of the students of the Eino Roiha institute who studying to become professional music therapists in Finland (for complicated reasons, this is a separate thing in Finland from the Master’s degree in which music therapy research is taught). For almost four years that I had been pursuing music research, no one had mentioned to me or any other of the MMT students that clinical music therapy students came to the University of Jyväskylä every Friday for their professional training. Of course, at that point being fully immersed in the research world, I had never really asked. We all agreed that it was ridiculous for there to be so little contact between our worlds, and MTFI was born.

Over the years my views about music therapy and music therapy research have broadened and changed. My undergraduate self had a somewhat naive faith in the power of scientific research to convince, and had not yet developed an appreciation of just how impossibly complex and multi-faceted a process music therapy can be, handily confounding attempts to quantify it in simple terms. That said, music science is populated by a lot of brilliant and nerdy people who deal with and find ways to quantify impossible complexity on a daily basis. It is also full of people who do not know much about music therapy, and it often fails to take disability and disease into account when trying to develop our understanding of how music affects us body and mind. This is, of course, a shameless generalization, but one based in almost a decade of personal experience.

I have met some of the smartest, most talented, most brilliant people I know in both music therapy and music science/psychology. I want more of them to know about, and know, each other. For me, this is what MTFI is about.

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