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Music: The Therapeutic Edge. Readings from William W. Sears

br2007_089Sears, Margaret S. (Ed.) (2007). Music: The Therapeutic Edge. Readings from William W. Sears. Gilsum: Barcelona Publishers (168 pages).


It was 1am on a cold and rainy Vancouver night. I was asleep when the phone rang.

When I answered, a voice said, “Is this Carolyn Kenny?”

Groggily, I responded: “Yes. It is. Who is this?”

“Well, we haven’t met. But my name is Bill Sears,” the voice said in a slow and deliberate drawl.

“I know you. Of course I know you, Mr. Sears,” I replied, pinching myself to try to wake up quickly.

“Well. . . . . . (long pause). . . . , I saw that you are doing a presentation at the National Association of Music Therapy conference in Dallas in a few months. Your talk is called ‘The Magic of Music Therapy.’ Is that right?” he said.

“Why, yes. That’s right.” I wasn’t really sleepy anymore.

“Well. . . (long pause, again). . . I’d like to invite you to join a little symposium that we are having in Dallas at SMU before the conference. There’ll be about twenty people there. And we’re going to talk about Music Therapy,” he said. “How does that sound to you?”

“Well, (I’ve taken on his ‘well’ by now), I can only come for one day, Mr. Sears. I have small children, you see. And I have to teach classes at the college.”

“That’ll be fine, then. We’d sure like to have you there even if it’s only for a day,” he said.


This surprising encounter in the middle of my night represents the beginning of a very short, but an extremely influential professional relationship because Bill Sears died a little more than one year later. I only met him once.

Bill Sears might be considered Music Therapy’s version of Ken Wilbur – a visionary thinker who studied many disciplines and scholars in an attempt to offer theoretical guidance, in this case, to music therapists. He was a voracious reader and intellectual who thought broadly about music and music therapy. And he was an avid model player/maker. When I met him in Dallas in 1979, I was very fortunate to have several long walks and talks with him across the campus of Southern Methodist University. At the time I was interested in the works of people like Fritz Capra, Gary Zukav, George Leonard, David Bohm, and systems theory, especially field theory. Finally I had found someone who would have a conversation with me about these scholars and discuss how their works might serve music therapy.

But as I reflected on the Symposium and his dialogical presentation with Charlie Eagle at the 1979 conference, I had to wonder, is there anything that Bill has NOT read?

So it is, indeed a gift to have this volume titled Music: The therapeutic edge: Readings from William W. Sears, edited by his wife, Margaret Sears, and published by Barcelona Publishing Company. Now it is possible to revisit some of Bill’s ideas about processes for music therapy, and to benefit from a number of his previously unpublished works and notes.

The forward to this volume, written by his long time associate and close friend, Charles Eagle, and the introduction by his wife of thirty years, Margaret Sears, provide both scholarly and personal insights into his life and work.

In Chapter 1, we have his classic article “Processes in Music Therapy”, reprinted from E.T. Gaston’s Music in Therapy,( 1968), the first textbook in Music Therapy published in the United States. This is a theoretical cornerstone for music therapy. Among other things, he discusses three primary constructs: 1) experience within structure, (2) experience in self-organization, and (3) experience in relating to others. These provide the centerpiece for a rich theoretical discussion. The chapter is full of conceptual ideas about processes in music therapy. And it was quite revolutionary at that time to focus on “processes” with the mainstream emphasis on outcomes. In a sense, Sears dealt with a fundamental paradox in his works: process vs. product. In 1982, one of the Working Groups at the 1982 New York University Symposium, Music in the Life of Man, adopted Sears’ final statement in this article as a key element toward a theory for Music Therapy: “Processes in music therapy take place by uniquely involving the individual in experience within structure, experience in self-organization, and experience in relating to others.” (Kenny, 2007, p. 89)

Chapter 2 is considered by Margaret Sears to be the centerpiece of the collection. This is a chapter titled “A Re-Vision and Expansion of Processes in Music Therapy.” In this work, which was originally presented at the Dallas conference in 1979, Sears joined his own model of processes to J.P. Guilford’s theory of intelligence, called the Structure of Intellect. By combining the two models, Sears felt that he was able to liberate his process model from the inaccurate linear representation it had had in the original formulation. Guilford was particularly interested in creativity and emphasized convergent and divergent thinking. If only the technology had been available, Bill would have been able to offer more accurate presentations of his dynamic model. But in Guilford, he seemed to be satisfied that he had added the important dynamic element to his processes that would enliven the discussion and provide a useful theoretical map for practicing music therapists.

These two chapters constitute the most famous written contributions that Bill Sears gave to our field. It is fascinating to follow his thinking and reflexivity and how his ideas change over time. One gets the sense that he is searching for a treasured gift to offer the student and practitioner. But this model would be a paradox. Sears states:

The model is intended to clarify the processes so that they may be singled out and made personal to you, the therapist. It does not have to be applied as outlined or as used by other therapists. It is intended to lend itself to further expansion and modification by the user, while at the same time expressing a single, unified system for music therapy. (pp. 37-38)

The Third Chapter, “Models for Thinking” provides a veritable feast for those, who like Sears, are fascinated with models. In this chapter, we start to see a Renaissance man who understands that to offer something truly useful and enduring to a specific context, one must consider the broader contexts. This is systems thinking at its best.

In Chapter Four, titled “On Music, Mind, Education, and Human Development”, Sears muses on other models that consider how to raise children, a short section on consciousness, literature on the brain and the new physics, and more generally, the arts as healing. This chapter was originally a lecture presented at the National Association for Music Therapy 28th annual conference in 1977. “Wonder” is the opening theme of this chapter. And Sears begins his lecture by summarizing some of the core concepts of Joseph Chilton Pearce and his cutting edge work, The Magical Child. This book was a core reading for many parents, including myself, in the 1970s.

In Chapter Five, titled “The Influence of Music on Behavior”, we get the sense that Sears struggles with the questions about why this theme has not been explored to a greater degree in our music therapy literature. He poses the question immediately: What ever happened to the influence of music on behavior? Here we see the roots of his thinking stretching back to John Blacking and E.T. Gaston. Moving through culture to music itself and the psychology of music, he goes on to consider “hearing as the King of the senses”. In an editor’s note in this chapter, we see the ongoing lament that the theme of “the influence of music on behavior” still has not been adequately discussed in our literature up to the present day.

Chapter Six, titled “Time, the Servant of Music” offers a defense of time itself as the essential element for our consideration when it comes to music and music therapy. Sears is quite insistent that because of the nature of the musical experience, we must rely on the temporal elements in our practice. He brings a host of disciplines and scholars from philosophy, to literary fiction, to Jungian psychology, to futurists, to physicists to parapsychologists to help him in this defense. Embedded within this chapter, in the section titled “music—the art of time”, Sears offers another one of his crystal conceptual formulations for us to consider:

  1. Music cannot be interrupted without losing its intent
  2. The necessity for moment-to-moment commitment by the individual rests in the music itself
  3. Time-order extends beyond rhythm
  4. The tempos of life and music are comparable” (p. 137)

He offers narrative descriptions of these principles that are quite compelling. Here’s an example:

But music is so basic a process, enjoying a direct channel to the temporal lobe within the cerebral cortex without the need of transformation or conversion from its original state, that the moment we commit ourselves to it, we must be ordered in our behavior to some point in the future if meaning is to result and reality prevail. (p. 138)

In this short quote, we get a sense of the missionary zeal embedded in Sears’ work. If only he could have lived to see the day when we now know that music, considering the receptive and active functions, engages more areas of the brain than speech.

Finally, in the last chapter, “Semantic and Existential Implications for Music Therapy,” we can read some of the scattered notes that Bill left behind. This chapter ends with an important editor’s note that brings it all together:

Finally, the stress both existentialism and general semantics place on time can be found in many other disciplines, and thus in itself should not be justification for linkage. However, it illustrates the power this dimension of reality exerts on human beings and all they experience. It appears logical to me, and hopefully has been demonstrated in the preceding, that music’s temporal nature offers a powerful medium for expressing the tenets of existential psychology and general semantics. Nobody, to my knowledge, has yet considered this, let alone explored it in depth. Perhaps this present effort will inspire such a study. (p. 162)

Beyond the first two chapters, this is not a book for the faint-hearted. If you want to gain something from reading Sears’ ideas, you have to work for it. His ideas are full of paradoxes. Many of the pages are disconnected musings. He loves not only models, but ambiguity. And he has much more tolerance for ambiguity than you or I. He is extremely abstract in his thinking. And though his intention is to offer something for the practitioner, in this book, we have to connect the dots ourselves from theory to practice. We must interpret Sears’ ideas, in terms of their relevance to our own lives and works. But that’s what he would want. That’s what Bill would say: “Make it your own.”

His works leave space for interpretation. And, yes, you need that treasured commodity that Bill loves so much – time. You need space and time to figure out what he is trying to say and to integrate it.

Some would say that the ideas in this book are outdated. Not so. Sears was a man of his time and carefully considered the ideas in the intellectual climate that surrounded him. He was a serious intellectual, and one who expressed his ideas within a particular frame and did so creatively. Certainly, the era of behaviorism has come and gone. And Bill’s choice to stay in the behaviorist frame of mind probably inhibited the development of some of his own ideas. I would have welcomed more on consciousness, for example. But consciousness was not in vogue in the time he wrote – at least not as much as behaviorism in music therapy. But discourse is a social/professional endeavor. And he related to those around him. For example, he mentions the fact that improvisation is not used enough in music therapy. If only he could be alive today. His ideas are very relevant for today’s music therapists, especially those of us who are interested in creating theories and models of our own.

My work was profoundly influenced by Bill Sears. After meeting him and realizing that some of my ideas were feasible, I made the decision to begin my doctoral studies, I used his processes as the foundation of my work. I took him up on his idea to “build models” for music therapy. There are many, many other connections. And future generations of music therapists will benefit from his ideas, as well. Indeed, he started a theme and, hopefully, there will be many variations on that theme.

After I completed my study of this book, I experienced a rather profound sense of loss. What was it? What was I missing? Was it the deeply emotional and spiritual loss described by Margaret Sears, Bill’s wife and editor of this volume? Or was it the relational loss of Bill’s close friend and colleague Charles Eagle? They each offer poems at the end of the book expressing deep emotions.

Arguably, Bill was one of music therapy’s best kept secrets. To some, he was an icon. And he was immensely charismatic in his own quiet way because he was mystical by nature. Like many mystics, he had a deep sense of empathy and an ethical sensibility that knew no end. He wanted to find solutions to problems to help people have a better quality of life. He wanted to address these problems through his musings on time, behavior, music, and music therapy processes.

Finally I knew the source of my grief. And the insight I have gained is concerned with death and ideas. All of Bill’s thoughts ended when he died. He anticipated this possibility when he wrote:

A theoretical formulation such as this may suffer one of several fates: It may pass into history having received little consideration. It may be examined and found wanting, but because of the study it required, result in a different, and more adequate formulation of theory. Finally, it may prove of enough interest and worth to be put to the test in practice and research—to be modified, improved, and expanded. Hopefully, the latter fate will come to pass. (p. 15)

The margins of my copy of this new book are elaborately notated with “If only Bill had . . . “It’s a litany of contemporary situations and scholars with whom I’m sure he would have liked to engage. Here’s a small sample:

If only Bill could have attended the 1982 Symposium at New York University on Music in the Life of Man: Toward a Theory for Music Therapy.

If only Bill could have been alive to read Even Ruud’s Music therapy and its relationship to current treatment theories published in 1980. . .

If only he could have known and read some of the current work in neuroscience by people like Antonio Damasio and Oliver Sacks. . .

If only he could have read Tia de Nora’s ideas about music as technology. . .

If only he could have participated in the dialogues about Community Music Therapy and performance. . .

If only Bill had been here to read Joseph Chilton Pearce’s more recent work, The biology of transcendence: A blueprint of the human spirit about the importance of having coherence in the heart between mother and child. (Bill would have really liked this one because it’s a model !)

If only Bill could have discovered Lakoff and Johnson and read their great works on metaphor, especially Philosophy in the Flesh: The embodied mind and its challenges to Western thought .

If only Bill could have been alive to read the “re-vision” of David Sudnow’s great work, The ways of the hand: A rewritten account, published in 2001. (Sudnow died in July 2007).

If only he could have read David Burrows 1990 book, Sound, speech, and music, which also emphasizes the importance of time.

He was an elegant visionary. In fact, I am convinced that within 20 years, the major discourses in most disciplines will center on concepts Time and Space. If only Bill could be here to see that.

I long to walk and talk with Bill, once again, across the campus of Southern Methodist University. I long to ask him a question and then wait with him in the silence as he carefully considers his answer. I long to have him throw me into a challenging paradox of thought that I can ponder over several months or years. I long to hear him say, once again, “Yes, [behavior modification] works, but so does the atom bomb!” (Sears, xix)

Now we have to imagine. This book is not an easy read. But it is a very important read not only for music therapists, but others who long to solve the mystery of why music is so influential in our lives. Bill Sears was not a writer. He was a dialoguer. He wanted to gather people to SMU in 1979 because he was inspired by the dialogues that occurred in Herdecke in 1978. So when you read this book, you must imagine walking and talking with Bill. You must imagine those mysterious and reflective silences between the thoughts – the ones that give thought time and space to breathe.

We own a debt of gratitude to Margaret Sears for taking on the Herculean task of putting this book together so that thought will not die.

Sometimes when we speak of Bill Sears, there is a cultish air of mystery in our tone and our words. In the poems of Margaret Sears and Charles Eagle, and in my own previous words in the Nordic Journal of Music Therapy (Kenny, 1996), this is apparent. There is a kind of romantic ideal here and a paradox because Bill was a dedicated rationalist. Yet Bill was as ineffable as music itself. My Haida mother always tells me that when people die, they don’t really leave. She says: “There is a thin veil between life and death.” If there is such a veil, this book helps us to keep Bill Sears alive through his ideas, many of which are yet to be explored by future generations of Music Therapists and others who have experience the power of music and the capacity of music to make a difference.


Blacking, John. (1973) How musical is man? Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Burrows, David. (1990). Sound, speech, and music. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press.

Damasio, Antonio. (1999). The feeling of what happens: Body, emotion, and the making of consciousness. London: Heinemann Press.

Di Nora, Tia. (2000). Music in everyday life. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gaston, E.T. (1968). Music in therapy. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Kenny, Carolyn (2007). Music and life in the field of play: An anthology. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Kenny, Carolyn (1996). Introduction to William W. Sears’ article “Processes in Music Therapy”. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 5(1) pp. 31/2.

Lakoff, George & Mark Johnson (1999). Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought. New York: Basic Books.

Pearce, Joseph Chilton. (2002). The biology of transcendence: A blueprint of the human spirit. Rochester, VT: Park StreetPress.

Ruud, Even.(1980). Music therapy and its relationship to current treatment theories. St. Louis, MO: Magna Music Baton.

Sacks, Oliver. (2007). Musicophilia: Tales of music and the brain. New York: Knopf Publishing Group.

Sears, Margaret S. (Ed.) (2007). Music: The therapeutic edge. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Sudnow, David. (2001). Ways of the hand: A rewritten account. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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