When I think about my life, I have an image of waves moving rhythmically, at different levels and in different directions, each producing different sounds. These sounds reflect me interacting with other people in various environments. Perhaps I have developed this metaphor as a musician trying to understand what is going inside and around me emotionally. It is a kind of an ecological perception in which each wave, whether sonic or emotional, becomes a meaningful presence.
I was astonished the first time I heard the recorded sounds of planets and the composed music sent to Voyager as witness of our human civilization and cultures. While the aural perception of music on this planet is made possible by human sensory organs and functions, in other parts of the Universe perhaps music is a mathematical code immediately grasped by intelligent minds. This leads me to think that space is not empty or chaotically immeasurable; rather it is filled with rhythm, and sounds – or electromagnetic waves. Curiously, the immense space of the universe is not threatening for me as before.
Once a very different experience happened at my physician’s office, when I first heard my own blood pulsing through my veins, during an echo Doppler imaging. The incessant bubbling flow seemed to nurture each cell in my body, with dynamic contours and peaks of intensity arising randomly, above the background sound.
Meeting outstanding people in the Music Therapy field, like Helen Bonny and Ken Bruscia, allowed me to reach a deep level of understanding of sound and rhythm and how they embed our lives. That opened terrific scenarios I could never imagine before.
Suddenly my mind diverges from such pleasant experiences and goes to a patient of mine, suffering from a severe kind of autistic syndrome. That young man felt people as if they were electrical appliances, making irritating noises. It seemed as if he could perceive when a person had some health or emotional problem which, for him, made unbearable sounds. In such occasion he became very anxious, crying aloud while lying down, moving his body as if tortured by those dangerous noises.
When his psychodynamic therapist introduced me to this young man, she told me about an unusual behavior of his. Quite often, during a therapy session, he made vocal sounds while rhythmically wringing his hands. His sounds were so emotionally intense that their message—“Help!”—seemed to flood my being. How could I participate in a meaningful way to share his anxiety and at the same time modify it safely? I decided to experiment with adding my own vocalizations (with overtones) to his. He was very surprised to hear my sounds and his together. We used to tape our nonverbal dialogue and, afterwards, listen to it with curiosity. That became part of our music therapy session: no longer did he isolate himself; instead he accepted vocal interactions with me first, and, then, with other people outside.
My opinion was that, by these interactive music experiences, he developed a better selective attention function so that he was able to process only the meaningful sounds, distinguishing them from the huge amount of incoming stimuli. Finally he could enjoy being with people, without being overwhelmed by their presence and their annoying sounds.
In contrast, sounds could not be shut off or avoided in the delusional experiences of schizophrenic patients that had I met previously in a Mental Health Community Center. Terrifying voices and crashing sounds were always present in their heads, unless we played music that they liked. Listening to such moving music transformed the perceived nasty words into supportive ones, so that they could feel relieved from their painful situation: the green color of their face turned on in a light pink together with a smile illuminating their eyes.
Other examples of unforgettable sounds in my own life come to mind: the roar of bombs exploding during the Second World War, and our neighbors’ desperate cry for the deportation of their close relatives. In both situations, my mother took great care to help me to cope with these dramatic events so that as a child I could not be overwhelmed by fearful or anxious sounds. She guided me through each fearful event with a brave heart, looking for strength and possible resources. I was grateful to her then; and later as a music therapist.
I particularly appreciated my mother’s insights when I began to work with clients in Guided Imagery and Music (GIM), wherein a client may experience similarly difficult and tragic situations. The guide has to be a supportive, trustful presence that allows the client to cope with and explore the situation to discover and develop potentialities available to the client. Every GIM session affords the client and therapist with inexhaustible and surprising alternatives for healing: the rhythm of life is embodied in human beings as well as the environment; music can evoke motion and emotion, while also producing amazing levels of awareness and different states of consciousness necessary for improving quality of life.
In Hamburg, during the 8th World Congress, Maturana presented his idea which considers that a good development of each system is possible when there is coherence between its internal parts, and it and its environment. Human beings and their environment are in constant interaction. In this way they influence each other with mutual perturbation which trigger off structural modification in each system. Change has to occur at the same time, in a consensual domain of structural coupling, and, he said, this can happen, for example, with rhythm entrainment and music.
As I have observed in GIM sessions, the music evokes but does not determine the nature of personal modification. Any change is produced by each individual in a independent and unique way, based on subjective readiness and level of development, as well as the need to maintain the structural characteristics (autopoiesis) and to avoid disintegration. To reach that goal of integrity and coherence, our brain organizes schema to structure and order internal and external events using rhythmic patterns or subjective tempo, both of which are self-referential and carry our own personal meaning. Those temporal structures have a neurophysiological basis, and seem to be biologically determined; moreover, from a psychological point of view, they follow an evolution similar to early psychophysical experiences with a caregiver and the social environment. In some way, those temporal patterns may influence our music perception and evaluation by comparison between the inner and outer different temporalities. As Oliver Sachs says, our brain is a musical score; thus interaction with sound and rhythm is both natural and functional. Neurosciences enlarge our horizon regarding music and the brain, showing that numerous areas are involved in processing musical stimuli. The music effect on human beings and on their self-definition process is, partially, due to the emotional response to music.
Musical behavior and musical cognition are expression of the metaphorical process by which our knowledge evolves. The musical behavior and cognition prove that concepts become meaningful because they are associated with embodied functions. It is important to understand that what we call an abstract thought depends from our sensory and motor experiences. By consequence, music, which seems to be the most abstract form of artistic expression, may be considered the most embodied one, reproducing and stimulating rhythm, motion, emotion, and metaphorical thinking.
Moment by moment, music builds up both time flow and its duration. Unfortunately, this is not experienced by people with Alzheimer, because their subjective tempo, or internal clocklike system, processes separate instances in an atemporal fashion. In that pathological situation, only sensory and emotional memories seem to function. They do not mentally grasp the present, nor can they demonstrate the capacity of the human nervous system to maintain its viability and integrity from instant to instant, as described in T. Fraser’s theory. There is no more the noetic experience of time which combines ideas about present, past, and future necessary to define and construct a conscious unity of selfhood. By hearing music, Alzheimer patients could answer, emotionally, in the instant articulated and defined by music itself. In this experience they can live the organic present in which is still possible to maintain coherence among their biological clocks. And, thus, they can still feel joy.
All the above experiences stimulated and sustained me in trusting the efficacy of music to enhance human quality of life, in spite of criticism and depreciation expressed for years by some colleagues of mine as far as music therapy. At the same time other colleagues shared my ideas, and appreciated my work. By consequence with their support my dream came true. So that I succeeded to bring music therapy, particularly the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music, at the highest academic level in Italy, founding the post graduation Institute named “School of Psychotherapy and Integrated Music Therapy – SPIM” to train psychologists and physicians in this field.
This is my life a meaningful kinetic Symphony moved by, through, and with a sonic universe of feelings evoked by rhythm, sounds, and music.
Bruscia, K.E. & Grocke, D.E. (Eds.) (2002). Guided Imagery and Music: The Bonny Method and Beyond. Gilsum NH: Barcelona Publishers.
Fraser T. (1990). Of Time, Passion, and Knowledge: Reflections on the Strategy of Existence. Second edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Johnson, M. (1987). The Body in the Mind. The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Maturana, H.R. (1970). Biology of Cognition. Urbana: University of Illinois.
Perilli, Gabriella Giordanella (2008). Sound, Rhythm, Life Symphony. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved June 10, 2013, from http://testvoices.uib.no/?q=colperilli190508