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Music and Meaning. Opening Minds in the Caring and Healing Professions

Butterton, Mary (2004). Music and Meaning. Opening Minds in the Caring and Healing Professions. Oxford: Radcliffe Medical Press, 168p.

Reviewed by Even Ruud, PhD., Prof., University of Oslo, Norway

When the book editor mailed me and asked if I could review this book I hesitantly accepted, believing this was another heavy philosophical inquiry into the aesthetics of music. I had not seen the subtitle yet, or glanced through the book. I was positively surprised then to receive a book, written by a musician and a psychotherapist (PhD), addressing herself to fellow health workers (why not musicians?) on the subject of how music may serve important psychological functions in our lives. More important, it was a report from an empirical project, grounding the insights in written statements from and interviews with 15 informants, all sharing their personal relations with and insights into musical experiences.

The book is divided into three sections. In the first two chapters, Butterton introduces her basic concepts and understanding of music, which she draws from music philosopher Zuckerkandl and Langer, neuroscientists and developmental psychologist like Trevarthen, Stern and Damasio, and psychoanalysts Bollas and Winnicott. Butterton presents her material in an exemplary pedagogical way, balancing elegantly between a more realist of objectivist ways on describing music as fields of tensions and a more personalist and subjective theories who perceive music as a personal expression containing many layers of meaning. The author relies heavily on Trevarthen’s theory of intrinsic motive formation and intrinsic motoric pulse, which states the early biological formation for our identification with the flow of tensions in the music. Our later engagement with music, the vague sense of being moved “away from” and “towards” the dynamics inherent in music, coupled with the experience of vitality affects (Stern) also rooted in infant psychology, creates a basic matrix for later personal projections into the many “affordances” (my expression) of music. Butterton gives a clear understanding of how qualities in music defines it as a relational field of tension, which seems important for our later tendency to give anthropomorphic, or humankind-like projections or readings of musical meanings. And not least, the author is in touch with the current influence of popular music: dynamic tensions fields are present in rock music as well as in classical pieces, she states. In the third and last section of the book, Butterton synthesizes theories from these fields on the background of the interviews.

The interview section contains a brief autobiographical statement about the role of music in the life of each participant, followed by an interview. Then the person has selected their own piece of music which is commented upon. This verbatim “provide us with insights into how each engages in particular interpersonal relationships at a deep level and how music frames the shapes and contours of their individual thoughts”, Butterton writes (p.17). One can notice how Butterton is using her psychotherapeutic background in leading these conversations which are quite personal and often to the point.

This project is not formally defined as research, Butterton writes. I find her methodology, however, quite original, combining personal writing, interviews and the use of a personally selected piece of music as a prompt for further explorations. This would make up for a good qualitative research project. This is a simple, elegant and original way of doing research and we may wonder (again) why there has been so little qualitative research taken this phenomenological starting point when exploring the subjective meaning of music. Her choice of theory gives a consistent and informative perspective. On the other hand, there is more to life than psychoanalytically informed knowledge, developmental psychology and neuroscience. Other fields of human sciences will help us to expand how music makes us construct identity in a wider sense, but that is another story. (Considered as a research project, though, this point about theoretical reflexivity would have prevented the author from sometimes reverting to too reductionist thinking about the aesthetic experience). Music therapists may also be disappointed that they are not mentioned here, and Mary Butterton will have supporting insights if she goes beyond internet presentations and into the actual literature and research on GIM – as well as GIM therapist will have their insights grounded and expanded from reading this book.

This book is an excellent and convincingly narrative about how we may become observant about the functions of music in everyday life. Considering how many health workers are uninformed by the role of music as a life supporter, and how objectivist and realist conceptions of music are creating cultural barriers between for instance medical staff and patients, this book will help to further the communication about and use of music in the health services. It will really open the minds about the meaning of music, as the author promises us in the subtitle.

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