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Can Music Hurt?


As a music therapist, my goal is to help others through music. However, there are times when music can be more harmful than beneficial. A group of researchers tackle the idea of creating a “Theoretical Model of Music-Induced Harm” in the latest issue of the Journal of Music Therapy. Why is this important? As therapists, we want to be helping rather than hurting our clients. It also helps demonstrate the need for training and licensure. It can also help us to teach people to use music more effectively outside of music therapy sessions.

The journal article “it’s Complicated: A Theoretical Model of Music-Induced Harm” begins with a literature review as well as stating the difficulties in defining “harm” and the circumstances under which it occurs. Examples include performance related injury, hearing loss, heart arrythmias, and seizures. Music may have a detrimental effect on concentration and focus. Lyrics and extra-musical associations can lead to increased drug cravings or cause a client to re-experience trauma or painful memories. Music has been used in torture and interrogation techniques. However, the researchers also pointed out that there is no empirical evidence demonstrating particular genres of music as damaging. As quoted from another study (North & Hargreaves, 2006), “the relationship between liking problem (author’s word) music and self-harm were not statistically significant when other mediating variables were considered”.

The researchers identified six major factors in Music-Induced Harm (MIH): context, interplay, deliver, music, recipient, and harm. It is important to note that the deliverer and recipient can be the same person. They then devised a series of questions to consider when devising or evaluating music interventions. They warned that the list of questions was not comprehensive and required further development. However, many of the items included are questions that music therapists already ask as they assess clients, collect data, and evaluate sessions.

There were two aspects of their research that I found especially interesting. One was that some instances of harm may be unavoidable. It is what happens after harm occurs and how it remediated that demonstrates the need of appropriate training. The other was the concept of invasiveness in music. As a hospice music therapist, I often provide services to patients who may not be able to tell me what they like or if they dislike what I am playing or consent to having music in the first place. However, they state that invasive does not always mean harmful. It does mean that we need to be aware and watch for adverse reactions.

Lincolnharper Music Therapy, LLC

Lincoln, NE, USA

402-560-8760

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