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Inspirem Music Therapy HK
  • Writer's pictureEsther Wong

Blog #3 Music Therapy and the Unconscious

Exploring the topic of the ‘unconscious’ has always been my passion, in fact this topic was my final thesis in my MA music therapy- “More than music: an investigation into the unconscious processes and their manifestation in music therapy”. As a music therapist trained in the UK, recognizing and understanding unconscious processes are considered as one of the key element in psychodynamic music therapy especially in improvisational music therapy and Guided Imagery and Music. (Note that there are four main music therapy approaches including: Behavioural Music Therapy, Neurological Music Therapy, Psychodynamic Music Therapy, Creative Music Therapy. It all depends on where the therapist did the training and the different client group.)

What shapes our lives and natures is not simply the content of our conscious mind, but in much greater degree that of our unconscious. Between the two is a sieve, and above is the consciousness, only the coarse material is kept back; the sand for the mortar of life falls into the depths of the It; above remains only the chaff, the good flour for the bread of life collects, down there in the unconscious.

(Groddeck 1923: 85)

The following is a extract from my MA final thesis, if anyone is interested to read more, please contact me, I'm happy to send you a copy.

What is ‘the unconscious’?

The concept of the unconscious was first developed and popularized by Freud, who thought of the conscious and the unconscious as two regions of mental activities- aware and unaware mental processes. ‘We call a process unconscious if we are obliged to assume that it is being activated at the moment, though at the moment we know nothing about it’ (Freud et al. 1933, p. 40). Jung’s metaphor seems to carry a much more positive connotation ‘consciousness . . . must always remain the smaller circle within the greater circle of the unconscious, an island surrounding itself with the sea; and, like the sea itself, the unconscious yields an endless and self-replenishing abundance of living creatures, a wealth beyond our fathoming’ (Jung 1946, p. 177).

The unconscious is the part of the mind which is inaccessible to the conscious mind but which affects behaviour and emotions (Soanes & Stevenson, 2004, p. 893). The unconscious contains everything, both negative and positive aspects in an individual’s personal history including feelings, sensations, memories, knowledge, thoughts and so on that the conscious mind has forgotten and is currently unaware of.

Unconscious processes are defined as processes that operate outside of conscious control and subjective awareness, that lead to judgments, decisions, reasons, actions and behaviour that are unintentional and of which an individual is unaware (Bargh & Williams, 2007). Unconscious processes based on psychoanalytic theories relevant in the music therapy include transference, countertransference, projection and defences.

In a clinical, therapeutic perspective, unconscious processes manifested in the clinical setting might reveal an individual’s state of mind and his/her therapeutic needs.

The unconscious and music therapy

The act of spontaneous, free flowing improvisation is the core of improvisation music therapy, they are often commented as the musical equivalent of the Freudian free association (Tyler 2000, p385; Streeter 1999, p.88), where one can freely choose between instruments and create sounds, shapes, patterns that might reveal conscious or unconscious materials.

Musical actions in the music therapy setting convey much more than the sound and the music we create together; the use of different musical elements such as rhythm, melody, dynamic, tempo, choice of instruments and patterns of musical interaction all seem to have the ability to manifest an individual’s unconscious by acting as transference/countertransference trigger, defensive and projective devices (Konig and Linder, 1994 p. 40; Bruscia 1987, p. 516-517). Moreover, verbal comments and discussion elicited during and after music improvisation as well as feelings and emotions evoked are manifestation of the unconscious of both the client and the music therapist.

The therapeutic value of understanding a person’s unconscious and the unconscious processes happening in the music therapy setting could be related to the overall aims of psychodynamic psychotherapy in which Hughes (2006, p.95) summarize it succinctly: to increase the client’s awareness of his patterns of behaviour; to help the client to be aware of and take responsibility for what he contributes to his difficulties; to help the client to be more aware of his conscious and unconscious expectations, and his motives in maintaining damaging patterns of behaviour; to help him to have more control and more choice in life; to help to improve his self-esteem.

From the music therapist’s perspective, understanding the unconscious processes is ‘an instrument of research’ (Heimann 1949) into the patient’s unconscious mental states, his conflicts and defences in which the therapist will be able to gain an in-depth insight into the client that might identify the contributing factors to the current problem the client is facing.

In essence, the way a person picks up an instrument, which instruments he or she chooses, the way he or she plays and interact with others all reflect something deep inside of him/herself such as their relationship patterns, psychological state of mind, feelings, thoughts, emotions and different aspect of oneself.


Bargh, J.A. and Williams, L.E., 2007. The nonconscious regulation of emotion. Handbook of emotion regulation, 1, p.429Á445.

Bruscia, K. E., 1987. Improvisational models of music therapy. Springfield IL: Charles C Thomas Publishers.

Freud, S., Strachey, J. and Gay, P., 1933. The dissection of the psychical personality. Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, pp.71-100.

Heimann, P., 1949. On counter-transference1. La transferencia en su disparidad subjetiva, su pretendida situación y sus excursiones técnicas, 12(2).

Hughes, P. and Riordan, D., 2006. Dynamic psychotherapy explained. Radcliffe Publishing.

Jung, C. G., 1946. Psychology of the transference, in The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Volume 16: The Practice of Psychotherapy: Essays on the Psychology of the Transference and Other Subjects, 2nd edn. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Konig K, Linder W., 1994. Psychoanalytic group therapy. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.

Soanes, C. and Stevenson, A., 2004. Concise English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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