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Forms of Vitality

Stern, Daniel (2010). Forms of Vitality: Exploring Dynamic Experience in Psychology, the Arts, Psychotherapy, and Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reviewed by Simon Gilbertson, University of Bergen

Daniel Stern’s work has played a highly significant role in the field of music therapy for decades. Since the early 1980’s Stern has moved through terms such as vitality affects, temporal feeling contours and vitality contours during over three decades of work on the concept, forms of vitality which is culminating in this 2010 book, Forms of Vitality: Exploring Dynamic Experience in Psychology, the Arts, Psychotherapy, and Development.

At the last Nordic Conference of Music Therapy in Aalborg, May 2010, Daniel Stern held a keynote presentation via video link from Geneva on the topic of this current book. It was Professor Tony Wigram, who most sadly passed away recently on June 24th 2011, who played a tremendously important role as the conference Scientific Coordinator making that keynote possible, transcribing Stern’s presentation into an article in the NJMT (Stern, 2010) and by creating a link, both personally and technologically, so that the wider music therapy profession could have the opportunity to listen to Daniel Stern and learn about ‘forms of vitality’ and the relation to music therapy theory, practice and research (Wigram, 2010).

Stern has organized’ Forms of Vitality’ in three parts, which in total contain seven chapters and a reference list:

  • Part I: Introduction and Background
    • Chapter 1. Introducing Dynamic “Forms of Vitality”
    • Chapter 2. The Nature and Theoretical Framework of Dynamic “Forms of Vitality”
    • Chapter 3. Ideas from Psychology and Behavioural Science Leading to Dynamic Forms of Vitality
    • Chapter 4. A Possible Neuroscientific Basis for Vitality Forms: the Arousal Systems
  • Part II: The Role of the Arousal Systems, and the Example of Music, Dance, Theatre, and Cinema
    • Chapter 5. Vitality Forms in Music, Dance, Theatre, and Cinema
  • Part III: Developmental and Clinical Implications
    • Chapter 6. When do Vitality Forms begin? A Developmental View
    • Chapter 7. What implications do Forms of Vitality Have for Clinical Theory and Practice?

All of the sections provide the reader with an almost immediate entrance into a hidden world of the stuff that human experience is made of. At the outset Stern determines the role that “movement, time, force, space, and intention/directionality – taken together give rise to the experience of vitality. As a globality, a Gestalt, these five components create a ‘fundamental dynamic pentad'” (p.4). Stern asserts that, as is obvious in the arts and present but at times hidden by daily routine and habituation, that a complex spectrum of these five components, are the stuff and material of what human experience and inter-relating is made of. As an example, he suggests that the dynamic form of a dancer’s movements can be sensed, perceived and understood and can be extracted from the actual physical event to be available to other dynamic media, music, for example. A contemporary dancer, Steven Paxton, well known for his development of contact improvisation who Stern writes about in this second part of the book, is an excellent example of this. As the developer of contact improvisation, Steven Paxton’s solo dance choreography with Glenn Gould’s recordings of the Goldberg variations or his “Material for the Spine” (Paxton, 2008) are prime examples of the material that is becoming more and more important in my own study and teaching on relational improvisation in music therapy. Stern’s perspective on human action and interrelation is founded in millennia of infant-care giver interaction, music and movement choreographies, and can be seen in such diverse activities such as synchronized underwater swimming, the spontaneous shouts and calls of young siblings playing unattended, and the most sophisticated of hip-hop dance-offs. Stern provides most wonderfully transparent and thought-provoking examples throughout the text for the primacy of the “forms of vitality.”

From this core, the book unfolds layer upon layer of human experience through discussing the dilemma confronting the sciences when dealing with Gestalts, to how psychology, behavioral science and a relational-neuroscientific perspectives are coming closer to dare to consider new and innovative neuroanatomical and neurofunctional and neuro-relational basis of “forms of vitality.” Those convinced of, and on the search for isolated locations of music function in the brain will finish this book empty handed; the book challenges the reader to extend towards new explanations and consider these in place of the old.

Following a feat of mastery in providing a narrative that challenges deeply the heart of reductionist science models while at the same time demonstrating directions of new paths of discovery, the first section leads the reader through a most fascinating consideration of “forms of vitality in music, dance, theatre and cinema” which is to be found in the second part. The section truly opens a kaleidoscope view of time-based human action and experience within the arts and provides exemplar and reflection through modern ballet and film, 20th century music composition and experimental theatre.

The third part of the book is “Developmental and Clinical Implications.” In this third and vital section, it may interest readers from the music therapy profession to find music therapy in the role of a prime example of Stern’s concept of forms of vitality in the section titled, “Vitality forms and intersubjectivity” (p.137). It is music improvisation in therapy that Stern uses to portray how “the role of vitality forms in intersubjectivity leads to a renewed interest in some of the basic notions of non-verbal therapies” and he refers to Tony Wigram’s descriptions of basic therapeutic methods of mirroring, matching, empathetic improvisation, grounding-holding-containing, dialoguing and accompanying, in Wigram’s 2004 book, Improvisation: methods and techniques for music therapy clinicians, educators and students. By focusing on Gro Trolldalen’s writing on music interplay (Trolldalen, 1997), Stern describes how “as the therapist and patient enter the same dynamic flow created by the music, there will emerge moments of ‘mutual recognition’ when they both realize, at the same time, that they are sharing a common experience. This is brought about through affect attunement, joint attention, and mutual confirmation. Such shared moments then act as do ‘moments of meeting’ in changing the relationship and moving it to a deeper level of intersubjectivity (BCPSG, 2008)” (p.140). It is clear that the mechanism of reciprocity is made of forms of vitality. It is then of course, no surprise that in the dance of improvised music, the senses combine and dissolve before our very eyes – ‘forms of vitality’ provides a way of staying with what remains, the essence and source of being human.

Stern closes the book with a succinct summary:

This book calls attention to the domain of dynamic forms of vitality. It demonstrates that such a domain exists, and shows that it is separate and distinct from the domains of emotion, sensation, and cognition. It stands on its own.

The second task has been to describe the scope of the domain of dynamic forms of vitality in psychology, the arts, psychotherapy, development, and neuroscience. It is ubiquitous as a part of all experience.

Finally, it intends to influence some of our current notions and suggest further paths of inquiry into this domain and all that it touches (p.149)

Daniel Stern’s Forms of Vitality is essential reading not only for music therapists, but also for anyone who is prepared to reconsider how humans experience themselves and others in relation. It is so beautifully written it can be read by students, therapists, educators and researchers, parents, and anyone who is willing to learn and grow through change.


Paxton, S. (2008) Material for the Spine. (DVD) Brussels: Contradanse.
Stern, D. (2010). The issue of vitality. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 19(2), 88-102.
Trolldalen, G. (1997). Music therapy and interplay. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 6(1), 14-27.
Wigram, T. (2004). Improvisation: Methods and techniques for music therapy clinicians, educators and students. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Wigram, T. (2010). Keynote presentation by Professor Daniel Stern: Preface. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 19(2), p.87.

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